How to Start a Revolution… Or Not

Capitalists always seek to undermine the organizing efforts of the working-class. Thus, in the wake of World War II the US government increasingly relied upon the class fighters of their newly launched Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to crush the democratic aspirations of ordinary people. Part of this secretive work involved the manipulation of electoral processes, with vast sums of money being channelled by the CIA to pro-capitalist political leaders and their parties to help them beat their socialist adversaries. Another component of this dirty political warfare directed millions of dollars towards the task of sabotaging the trade union movement. None of this is too surprising. Nevertheless, we need to be conscious of such anti-democratic interventions if we are to eventually beat our adversaries and ensure the socialist transformation of society. 

Part of this toxic history of the CIA’s ‘democratic’ manoeuvrings are recounted in Ruaridh Arrow’s book Gene Sharp: How to Start a Revolution (2020) – a hagiography of the late Gene Sharp (1928-2018), a man who is now remembered as one of America’s most influential theorists of nonviolence despite his umbilical connection to state department elites. This essay therefore aims to review Arrow’s book as a means of exploring how the ruling-class has co-opted the tools of civil disobedience to serve their own nefarious political ends.

To start with it is critical to highlight that Arrow, the ever-doting biographer, is adamant that despite Sharp’s friendly relations with America’s leading elites there is “no basis” for any accusation that the theorists work was in any way entangled with that of the imperial machinations of the US government or the CIA. With this proviso in mind Arrow launches into his book by accurately recalling how the CIA’s first “involvement in election manipulation… began with a growing horror that the communists were likely to win the Italian election due to be held in 1948.”

Arrow explains how the US intelligence agency then replicated similar anti-democratic interventions all over the world until their covert activities were finally exposed by ‘The Church Committee’ — a government body that “was set up in 1975 to publicly investigate the role of the agency in overseas elections.” But the lasting damage to global democracy causes was already done; and here Arrow provides a chilling illustrative example of the CIA’s democratic subversions by looking at the case of Chile.

“In an operation that was virtually a clone of the Italian plan,” he writes, the CIA interfered in the 1964 elections to stop Salvador Allende winning, with the agency spending “nearly four million dollars supporting political parties, publishing and broadcasting propaganda and radicalising slum dwellers.” These covert attacks on democracy then intensified when Allende became Chile’s president in 1970 and came to a violent head in 1973 when the CIA “backed a military coup which brought to power General Augusto Pinochet, [a leader] who went on to perpetrate some of the worst human rights abuses ever recorded.”

Such anti-democratic intrigues continue through to this day; indeed, they are a vital part of capitalist statecraft. But partly as a response to the American public’s revulsion to the Church Committee’s sordid findings, the US government decided that the best cover for continuing such anti-democratic work would be to carry it out under the cover of democracy. As Arrow notes, under President Reagan’s supervision the CIA’s “political warfare campaign” now evolved, “Instead of continuing these programs in secret under the CIA, [Reagan] opted to take democracy promotion out of the shadows. In effect, he privatised it.”[1]

In 1983 the President marked this foreign policy shift by launching a new organization called the National Endowment for Democracy. This groups four affiliate institutions — the AFL-CIO’s American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS), the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), the International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute – then received Congressional funding to enable the US government to overtly intervene in other countries political affairs. Arrow explains:

“The US press were sceptical and pointed out, correctly, that this was work previously conducted by the CIA, now being repackaged and brought out into the open. The Wall Street Journal quoted one official as saying, ‘we used to do some of this covertly… but when we stopped being able to keep our secrets in these matters, people became unwilling to accept out money’.” (p.83)

This backstory is apparently recounted in Arrow’s book because of its relevance to understanding Gene Sharp’s role in promoting nonviolent means of overthrowing foreign governments. This being done to debunk the accusations that Sharp’s revolutionary work has any relationship with the type of activities historically undertaken by the CIA. You might now begin to understand why Arrow’s book is so confusing.

To be clear, no physical evidence has been unearthed to prove that Sharp worked with the CIA: but it remains the case that the primary reason why Sharp’s critics have raised concerns about his work is because the theorist’s writings were closely aligned with the political interventions undertaken by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). And while it is true that Sharp’s nonviolent activism has received direct funding from the NED, Arrow remains perplexed why anyone would be bothered by this relationship. Arrow simply repeats: “I could find absolutely no evidence that he worked for or with the CIA or in pursuit of its objectives.”

Still, Arrow at least acknowledges that “a convincing case can be made that [Sharp’s] body of work, always in the public domain, was effectively co-opted by the US political warfare project with little consultation from the man who developed it.” And while this could be true, there remain many, many good reasons why Sharp has attracted so many detractors. Some of these reasons are provided within Arrow’s own text. For example, from early on in his long career Sharp had consciously set himself the unusual task of trying to convert the war-mongering members of the ruling-class to adopt the principles of nonviolent struggle, not a normal working-class pursuit by any means. Thus, from as early as 1960, Arrow writes, Sharp “had already decided that co-opting the system was the only way that change could be made.” [2] 

The violent side of nonviolence

Sharp, however, was not the first academic to demand that his government integrate nonviolent resistance into its repertoire of power. And in many ways his career echoed that of retired naval commander Sir Stephen King-Hall: a military man whose 1958 book DefenseintheNuclear Age had first “brought the notion of non-violent defense into the realm of strategic debate by urging it upon the UK, NATO, and the US, in lieu of nuclear weapons.”[3] King-Hall, as we know now, failed to popularize this novel idea, and it was only Sharp’s unrelenting persistence that led to his contemporary notoriety for pushing this elite-centred approach to social change.

In the mid-1960s Sharp made especially good headway into infiltrating elite circles after getting headhunted by one of America’s leading war strategists, Thomas Schelling, to join the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. The Center representing “a think tank for the up and coming US foreign policy elite,” as Arrow puts it.[4] Now based in the same department as Henry Kissinger — the powerbroker who famously went on to oversee the US-backed coup against Allende — you can begin to understand why some people became suspicious about Sharp’s allegedly objective approach to civil disobedience. As Howard Zinn famously said, “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.”[5] Arrow continues Sharp’s story noting how once in America:

“Schelling began looking for funding for Gene’s work from the Ford Foundation, set up by Henry Ford’s family to spread democratic values, but it was the US Department for Defense ‘Advanced Research Projects Agency’ (ARPA) which would stump up the first serious cash. Although he was not aware of it at the time, the ARPA money was a component of a classified US government effort to develop weapons and strategies for fighting counter-insurgences and curtail communist advances in remote parts of the world.” (p.74)

Considering the sinister nature of such research it is not wholly unsurprising that just a few years later the Center for International Affairs would become a focus for angry student protests.[6] And as a point of record, the Ford Foundation (like the Rockefeller Foundation and Carnegie Foundation) were, at that very time, working hand-in-glove with the CIA (that is, throughout the 1950s and 1960s) although Sharp would not have necessarily known it at the time. (An early and well-read article highlighting the connections between liberal foundations, the CIA, and the warmongers at Harvard was published by Ramparts magazine in October 1969 as “Sinews of empire.”) Still, while Sharp may have been unaware of such connections, Arrow should have been better informed — especially considering the subject matter covered in his own book — than to naively describe the Ford Foundation as a conduit for “spread[ing] democratic values”. This really is quite inexcusable given its past history.

Now, to return to Sharp’s personal views on obtaining military funding for peace research, Arrow says that:

“When challenged on this later by members of pacifist organisations, Gene was unapologetic about receiving the Department of Defense money. He’d been arguing since his time at Oxford that governments should finance research into nonviolent resistance as a substitute for war and that this should be fully integrated into national defense strategy.” (p.74)

Sharp however evidently drew a line in the sand when it came to the CIA. And Arrow goes on to explain how:

“In 1975, Gene was searching for another two-year funding grant and Schelling recommended him back to the Department of Defense. It was clear Schelling had potential funding contacts in the CIA, but Gene was adamant that he would refuse to take their money.” (p.76)

This subject had come up for discussion after Sharp had submitted a “funding proposal to Schelling’s Department of Defense contact – the head of the newly created office of ‘Net Assessment’ – a discreet unit of Pentagon futurologists whose job was to plan for strategic problems 30 years ahead.”[7] As part of his two-year funding bid for a colossal $452,000 grant, Sharp had sold his research plan to his potential funders like this:

“Basic and problem-orientated research, coupled with deliberate efforts at refinement and development, would very likely increase significantly the effectiveness of this nonviolent combat technique, as has been done with the technique of war. In addition to research, other means may help improve effectiveness, including contingency planning, training, and specific preparation to make the technique operational in conflicts in which war or other violence would otherwise be used. Such deliberate development of the effectiveness of this technique may extend the types of situations in which it is a viable option, even against extremely powerful and ruthless regimes.”

In this instance the head of Net Assessment had decided that the proposal was not appropriate for his department, so evidently, he had passed the grant application on to the CIA appending a note saying: “I thought the CIA might be interested in this work.” Sharp, as Arrow points out, was not keen to apply for CIA funds as he “feared from the stories in the press that the intelligence agency had gone rogue and would hijack the work for what he described as ‘bad dealings’.”

Sharp’s funding worries would however soon be permanently resolved as the following year one of his students, a young millionaire named Peter Ackerman, completed his own Ph.D. at Tufts University before going on to become Sharp’s generous benefactor. In the 1970s Ackerman had “earn[ed] millions of dollars” as a Wall Street banker specialising in ‘junk bonds’, and in 1982 he then took the decision to secure Sharp’s research future by funding the creation of two new groups: the first organization was ‘The Program on Nonviolent Sanctions’ which was based at Harvard, and the second was the privately based Albert Einstein Institution.[8]

A nonviolent banker

In the coming decades, most of the funding for Sharp’s two research/training groups were derived from Ackerman’s millions, but a quick perusal of the annual reports that were filed online by the Albert Einstein Institution lends credence to the logic that Sharp’s work continued to be highly entwined with imperialist foreign policy making elites. For example in May 1987 the Institution received a $50,000 grant from the US Institute for Peace, a group which at the time maintained close links to the intelligence community and is considered to be a sister organisation to the NED. By way of a contrast to the intelligence-linked USIP, Arrow explained that when the NED was created their founding board of directors “voted to forbid any employment of CIA personnel or allow the CIA to influence its programs.” [9] The same cautious approach did not hold true for the USIP, and an early critical article that was published in Z Magazine highlighted how:

“The idea of a national peace institute was long in the making and approved by a wide spectrum of peace advocates. But by the time the USIP was formally established in 1984, its board looked like a ‘who’s who’ of right-wing ideologues from academia and the Pentagon. By law, the USIP is an arm of the U.S. intelligence apparatus. The legislation that established the USIP specifies that ‘the director of Central Intelligence may assign officers and employees’ of the CIA to the USIP, and the Institute is authorized to use and disseminate ‘classified materials from the intelligence community.’

“In practice, the USIP intersects heavily with the intelligence establishment. Nearly half its board members played some role in the Iran-contra operations, and an analysis of the USIP’s grantmaking priorities since 1986 reveals substantial funding for ‘scholars’ already on the take from other military and intelligence agencies.”[10]

In the second decade of its existence, a summary of the varied work undertaken by the Albert Einstein Institution between the years 1993 and 1999 provides further details of their bad dealing supporters. Over this period stand-out financiers (which are listed on the first page of their report) included the National Endowment for Democracy, the USIP, the International Republican Institute, and the German-based Friedrich Naumann Stiftung. In addition, the Albert Einstein Institution received aid from two of America’s most influential liberal philanthropic organizations, the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Institute. “The origin of Gene’s work in the belly of an establishment” Arrow writes…

“…which was deploying political warfare would later lead to the often repeated theory that [Sharp] was a CIA asset and the Albert Einstein Institution a front for the destabilisation of governments not aligned with US political and economic interests.

“Those who believe this version of events can easily be forgiven because the weight of circumstantial evidence is convincing. The type of activities pioneered in Italy in the late 1940s would be easily recognisable in the funding priorities of the National Endowment for Democracy 50 years later. There is no doubt that the US, first under the CIA and later through the arms of the NED sought to influence and build democracies favourable to US policy interests.” (pp.88-9)

This is all very interesting, and Arrow explains that Sharp had received his first NED grant in the early 1990s which was used to enable his Institution to train Burmese democracy activists.[11] This delicate educational work was delivered by a new recruit to the Albert Einstein Institution named Colonel Bob Helvey who was fresh from serving as was the Dean of the United States Defense Intelligence School. With all the CIA-linked accusations flying around Arrow assures his readers that Sharp took every precaution in choosing to employ Helvey.

“Gene asked him frankly whether he had ever worked for the CIA. Bob understood the concern and assured Gene that as a brigade intelligence officer in Vietnam his duties had been exclusively tactical military intelligence, not political intelligence. As defense attache in Rangoon, his role had also been exclusively military intelligence and he had not been involved in political intelligence or what he termed ‘manipulations’ on behalf of the CIA. Bob also assured Gene that his work with Tin Maung Win and Ye Kyaw Thu and the democratic opposition in Burma had been strictly personal and not part of any military assignment or responsibility.” (pp.152-3)[12]

Weaponising nonviolence, and the case of Venezuela

For reasons that will perhaps remain unknown, during the 1990s Ackerman took the decision to focus less on banking and more on his academic – and inaccurate – studies of the history of nonviolence. In 1999 he therefore helped raise $3 million to fund the 1999 Emmy-nominated film A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict, whose creation also received additional financial support from the USIP. Then in 2002 Ackerman co-authored a book with the same name — a text that has gone on to become something of keystone book amongst nonviolent activists, despite all its serious shortcomings. The release of this publication also coincided with the launch of Ackerman’s new pet project which was christened as the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC).

According to Arrow, in November 2003 Bob Helvey had become upset with the lack of funding that Sharp was getting and so he informed Ackerman that the Albert Einstein Institution “needed to embark on a major fundraising effort to fulfil the mission properly.” But “Ackerman disagreed strongly – he felt he had donated enough to perform the basic tasks and didn’t want any of Gene’s time wasted on fundraising.” Ackerman was already providing Sharp “with an annuity that would provide a salary for the rest of his life” and now he had his own new Center to manage. This argument apparently brought Sharp and Helvey into a serious disagreement “with their major donor” Peter Ackerman. Nevertheless, the pair “decided to press ahead” in open defiance of their multi-millionaire benefactor which resulted in Ackerman “threaten[ing] to remove all of his funding.” Arrow recounts how “In a phone call, Ackerman repeated the ultimatum, to comply with his request or he would cease further funding of the institution.” But Sharp was adamant that he was not beholden to his powerful financier, which led to Ackerman cutting him free. As Arrow observes: “The money had been stopped and there was barely enough left to meet existing staff costs.”[13]

“Peter Ackerman now turned his attention soley to his own organisation, the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC). He began a more active promotion of nonviolent resistance training, funding Bob Helvey and the Serbs from CANVAS to carry out consultations with democracy groups around the world.

“The activities of the ICNC now meant that Gene’s work was turning up in places that Gene and Jamila [Raqib the Institutions executive director] had had no direct contact with. When a training camp carried out by Bob Helvey for Venezuelan activists was discovered by the government, the first thing Gene and Jamila hear about it was Hugo Chavez personally denouncing Gene on Venezuelan national television.” (p.219)

This is a nice story but is not completely true. Chavez did, it is true, attack Sharp’s activism in June 2007 during a short segment of his regular TV show, Alo Presidente, but it is wrong to suggest that Sharp knew nothing about this training camp. This is because in the Spring 2006 edition of the Albert Einstein Institution’s newsletter they reported that in May 2005 the Institution had “hosted a strategy workshop for Venezuelan nonviolent activists” that took place in Boston with funding provided by the ICNC.[14] Earlier still, in 2004, another report (which is reproduced on the Albert Einstein Institution’s web site) discusses President Chavez’s “increasingly authoritarian” “regime”. The report goes on to state that since December 2001 “Chávez’s popularity began to wane” and, as the Institution asserts, to retain power his “government responded with violent repression against… protesters”. Sharp himself, along with other staff from his Institution, then met with citizens opposed to Chavez’s presidency to “talk about the deteriorating political situation in their country”, which, in April 2003, led to the Institution organizing a nine-day in-country consultation to “develop a nonviolent strategy to restore democracy to Venezuela.”[15] Although it is not clear which groups Sharp consulted with during this period, we do know that at the same time the NED was playing an important role in providing aid to the very same opposition groups that had coordinated an unsuccessful coup attempt against President Chavez in 2002.[16]

The CIA connection

Another group worth discussing whose ‘democratic’ mission is directly related to the US government’s broader democracy promoting establishment is Freedom House – an organization upon whose research Sharp relied heavily upon in determining which countries needed his aid. In 1988 Noam Chomsky gave a succinct summary of this group’s activities when he wrote:

“Freedom House, which dates back to the early 1940s, has had interlocks with… the World Anticommunist League, Resistance International, and U.S. government bodies such as Radio Free Europe and the CIA, and has long served as a virtual propaganda arm of the government and international right wing.”

Even Arrow, in his muddled history of US democracy promoting activities singles this group out for special attention noting that it had “carried out training for activists and civil society organisations” throughout the Cold War and should be considered an “outlier” owing to its links to the CIA. And although it is not accurate to say it is an outlier in any meaningful sense, Arrow is right to note that: “Freedom House was not made subject to any of the controls on former intelligence personnel which bound the NED organisations”. Arrow continues “in fact, former CIA director, James Woolsey, would later become chairman of the Freedom House board of trustees.”[17]

What remains unexplored by Sharp’s naïve biographer is that Woolsey served as Freedom House’s chair between 2003 and 2005 before handing on this honour to Peter Ackerman. Such elite connections were normal for Ackerman, who is a longstanding member of the “imperial brain trust” known as the Council on Foreign Relations (joining their board of directors in July 2005). As socialist commentator John Bellamy Foster observed in 2008: 

“Ackerman [also] sits on the key advisory committee of the CFR’s Center for Preventive Action, devoted to overthrowing governments opposed by Washington by political means (or where this is not practicable, using political low intensity warfare to soften them up for military intervention). The CPA is headed by Reagan’s former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General John W. Vessey, who oversaw the invasion of Grenada. The members of the advisory committee of the CPA, including Ackerman himself, have all been heavily involved in helping to fulfill U.S. war aims in Yugoslavia, and the Center has recently focused on overturning Chavez’s government in Venezuela (see John Bellamy Foster, ‘The Latin American Revolt,’ Monthly Review, July August 2007). On top of all of this Ackerman is a director of the right-wing U.S. Institute of Peace, which is connected directly through its chair J. Robinson West to the National Petroleum Council, which includes CEOs of all the major U.S. energy corporations.  On the domestic front, Ackerman has been working with the Cato Institute to privatize Social Security.”

The irony is that the very person who funded nearly all of Sharp’s work throughout the 1980s and 1990s specializes in working in cooperation with members of the intelligence community. While another researcher of nonviolence who upholds such a dubious legacy is Professor Erica Chenoweth; an individual who first worked as a consultant for the ICNC in 2006 and later served as the co-chair of their advisory board before co-authoring the much-quoted book Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (2011). Arrow introduces her work in his own biography and goes so far as to celebrate her book saying this was the first study that “proved” with “evidence that nonviolent campaigns could be more successful than violent campaigns”.[18] Again this is not entirely true. And we also know that this type of research remains of huge interest to both the military and to the intelligence community, and while Chenoweth was serving as the ICNC’s co-chair she was simultaneously a member of the CIA’s “Political Instability Task Force” and rather unsurprisingly her research has been showered with millions of dollars from her military paymasters.[19]

Bringing ‘democracy’ to Venezuela

Finally, it is appropriate to observe that following in the ‘democratic’ footsteps of her nonviolent mentors, Professor Chenoweth would keep alive a strong hatred of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuelan “regime” and its authoritarian legacy. This was made clear in Chenoweth’s latest book Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know which was published last month by Oxford University Press. Herein she discusses how “authoritarian” regimes like to countermobilize their supporters “by paying loyalists to hold patriotic parades, setting up encampments, or turning out in pro-government marches”. She uses three examples to make this point: the first two are the unquestionably authoritarian regimes of Bashar al- Assad in Syrian and Putin in Russia, but her third example is that of Hugo Chávez, who she says went on to establish his “so-called Bolivarian Circles, or pro-government grassroots neighborhood organizations, in the slums of Venezuela”.

In relation to Chavez’s recent political successor Nicolás Maduro, Chenoweth applauds the “millions of people joined marches and demonstrations against President Nicolás Maduro in 2017 and 2019.”[20] She then moaned that…

“…Maduro’s government in Venezuela responded to protests in 2019 by expelling American diplomats, citing evidence that the US government had conspired to support a coup against his government.” (pp.234-5)

Of course, Maduro’s reaction was far from controversial, as earlier in her own book Chenoweth herself acknowledged that Maduro had good reasons for being suspicious of the US government. But it seems that the peace-loving professor is primarily concerned about Venezuelan government conspiracies because she had idolized the right-wing opposition movement. Ironically, it seems that Chenoweth is not generally supportive of US interventions in other countries as, she says, such foreign support “may actually undermine a civil resistance campaign’s critical source of strength: mass participation.” Chenoweth continues:

“This is arguably part of what happened to the pro-democracy movement in Venezuela in 2019 and 2020. A diverse, inclusive movement to challenge the power of Nicolás Maduro began to shrink in size and diversity once the United States began to double down on economic sanctions against Maduro and his close associates, actively support opposition leader Juan Guaidó, and threaten armed intervention to install him.” (p.138)

It is important to note here that the “pro-democracy” protest that Chenoweth refers to was in reality a US-backed coup that was led by right-wing politicians and fascists. The events surrounding these right-wing attacks on Maduro also featured in an online magazine that includes Chenoweth as one of its founders.[21] On February 1, 2019 the magazine thus discussed in frank terms how it was routine for American presidents to engage in “foreign-imposed regime change”. The following day the magazine then ran an article by a longstanding ICNC contributor (who is a current USIP senior scholar) which described Maduro’s government as a fully-fledged dictatorship which had needed removing. And while socialists have criticisms of the capitalist governments of both Maduro and his popular predecessor (Hugo Chavez), we by no means follow the imperialist line which sees the likes of Chenoweth and her magazine providing uncritical support to Guaidó’s fascist-leaning reactionaries.

Writing at the time of the coup in January 2019, Socialist Alternative thus explained that ordinary people “cannot have the slightest confidence in the Maduro government, the bureaucracy or the senior army officers if we want to prevent the victory of the reaction.” Instead:

“The first task of the working class and the politically conscious and combative people of Venezuela is to organize resistance against the coup. We must begin by denouncing the true objectives of Guaidó, the right wing and imperialism. We have to organize assemblies in each company and place of work to discuss what our needs and demands are and how the economic plans and policies of the right mean a mortal danger. It is urgent to create action committees in defense of the rights of workers and the people in each work center and each neighborhood, defending a genuinely socialist class program, which proposes the expropriation of the big private monopolies and banking to end the hyperinflation and corruption, the abolition of the privileges of the bureaucracy and that strives to transfer real power to the hands of the working class and the oppressed. We must organize massive mobilizations and the legitimate self-defense of the people against the violence of the right.”[22]

These democratic solutions are a million miles away from the type of sanitized capitalist-friendly resistance that is promoted by the likes of Chenoweth, Ackerman and Sharp.

But it is not true, as Chenoweth asserts in her book, that Marxists are “skeptical of the idea that nonviolent struggle could overcome entrenched economic inequality and bring about true economic justice.” This is because Marxists believe that it is precisely through the building of huge mass political movements and the organization of powerful general strikes across the world that the working-class can lay the groundwork for the final overthrow of the capitalist status quo. Of course, in the process of organizing nonviolent mass movements globally there is no question that capitalist elites will at some point attempt to drown such resistance in blood. This is why Marxists believe it is common sense that people have the right to defend themselves from capitalist violence.

And if you wanted a good example of how far the ruling-class will go to prevent the socialist transformation of society we need only reflect upon Chenoweth’s own examples where, in passing, she states that the US government have “fomented unrest and backed right- wing movements and insurgencies in many… countries, from the Contras in Nicaragua to armed militias associated with the Indonesian military during anti- communist mass killings of 1965– 1966.”[23] In the latter instance the CIA intervened directly with logistical assistance to help organize the slaughter of up to one million socialists and trade unionists. So, once you get you head around the utter depravity of the powers that be one can better understand why democratic movements of workers must always be able to defend themselves. History would seem to show that nonviolent resistance alone might not be enough to protect genuinely revolutionary movements of the working-class.

[1] Arrow, Gene Sharp, p.vii, p.76, p.80, p.82.

[2] Arrow, Gene Sharp, p.89, p.48. In an 1987 article, anarchist researcher Brian Martin discussed some of the major problems associated with such a pro-military approach to nonviolence which I previously discussed here, “From Sharp to Lovins: elite reform as progressive social change,” Swans Commentary, July 26, 2010.

[3] Gene Keyes, “Strategic non-violent defense: the construct of an option,” Journal of Strategic Studies, 4(2), June 1981, p.126.

[4] Arrow, Gene Sharp, p.72. In 1965 Sharp departed from his prestigious intellectual base at Oxford University — where he had carried out his Ph.D. — to settle in America.

[5] In March 2006 Howard Zinn served on the founding board of directors of a group called the International Endowment for Democracy which was formed to challenge the anti-democratic work of the National Endowment for Democracy. Perhaps unaware of the problems associated with the work of the Albert Einstein Institution, Zinn’s name would later appear in the Spring 2006 issue of the Albert Einstein Institutions newsletter where he lent his support to the Institution’s ongoing funding appeal. Likewise, in 2010 Zinn controversially signed an open letter that defended Sharp and the ICNC from legitimate criticisms that stemmed from the problematic relationships they maintained with the NED.

[6] Between “1968-72, the Center was so beset by student protests and upheaval that it could barely get its work accomplished.” Howard Wiarda, Harvard and the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs (WCFIA): Foreign Policy Research Center and Incubator of Presidential Advisors (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2010), p.41. Wiarda makes the point that it was quite likely that the Center was funded by the CIA as “Robert Bowie, CFIA’s first director, had an extensive CIA background and could have been a channel for CIA funding, and we do know that CFIA’s sister institution down Massachusetts Avenue, the Center for International Studies (CIS) at MIT, did receive extensive CIA funding during this same period.” (p.43) Bowie also served as CIA chief National Intelligence Officer from 1977-1979.

[7] Arrow, Gene Sharp, p.80.

[8] Arrow, Gene Sharp, p.81, p.85.

[9] Arrow, Gene Sharp, p.83.

[10] Sarah Diamond and Richard Hatch, “Operation peace institute,” Z Magazine, July/August 1990. The authors observe that one of top three “organizations receiving the largest number of grants” is the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis at Tufts University (where Ackerman obtained his Ph.D.). They note “About $90,000 has gone to the Albert Einstein Institution in Cambridge, where liberal peace researcher Gene Sharp studies the political impact of nonviolent sanctions… But a careful analysis of the USIP’s annotated list of 238 grant projects through early 1990 reveals undeniable favoritism toward researchers committed to Cold War paradigms. No recognized left scholars—let alone anyone with the Rainbow Coalition or European Green movements—has been funded to date.”

[11] Arrow, Gene Sharp, p.157. Arrow notes that later in 1995 “the National Endowment for Democracy granted the Albert Einstein Institution an additional $45,000 to continue providing training in political defiance alongside consultation visits.” Bob Helvey was “accompanied” on these training missions by a project officer from the IRI. (p.170)

[12] Tin Maung Win and Ye Kyaw Thu were cofounders of the Committee for the Restoration of Democracy in Burma (CRDB) which was founded in America in September 1986. “The CRDB’s parent organization, the Foundation for Democracy in Burma, was formed in conjunction with CRDB, as was its political party, the New Republic Party of Burma. Of the founding Burmese members, Tin Maung Win (vice chairman and general secretary) and Ye Kyaw Thu (executive director) seem to have played the most direct roles in organizing and directing the CRDB’s activities. Both Win and Thu had ‘long been in the national and revolutionary politics’ of Burma and ‘had participated in leadership in the armed struggle’ before migrating to the US in the 1970s, after which they kept the line of communication with the revolutionary leaders ‘active and healthy’.” Brian Denny, “The warden’s dilemma as nested game: political self-sacrifice, instrumental rationality, and third parties,” Government and Opposition, 56(1), April 2019, p.11 This article also discussed the nature of the training provided in Burma by Helvey which was supported by the NED.

[13] Arrow, Gene Sharp, p.216, p.216.

[14] The Albert Einstein Institution Newsletter, Spring 2006, p.10.

[15]Report on activities, 2000-2004,” The Albert Einstein Institution, 2004, pp.20-1. “The nine-day consultation was held by consultants Robert Helvey and Chris Miller in Caracas for members of the Venezuelan democratic opposition.” (p.21) The relevance of this report is discussed here: George Ciccariello-Maher and Eva Golinger, “Making excuses for empire: reply to defenders of the AEI,”, August 4, 2008.

[16] Kim Scipes, “AFL-CIO in Venezuela: déjà vu all over again,” Labor-Notes, April 1, 2004.

[17] Arrow, Gene Sharp, p.84. Later he writes: “The Egyptian offices of American democracy promotion agencies, like IRI and Freedom House were being provided with so much money by the US government in 2006 that they couldn’t work out how to spend it. That year Freedom House received a grant of $900,000 for development of Egyptian civil society advocacy and reform, but spent less than half of the money – mainly due to restrictions the Egyptian government placed on funding of groups they deemed too threatening.” (p.245)

[18] Arrow, Gene Sharp, p.64.

[19] I discussed these murky CIA connections in more depth here, “Why civil resistance works and why the billionaire-class cares,” CounterPunch, May 3, 2017.

[20] Chenoweth, Civil Resistance, p.235, p.230.

[21] The magazine in question, Political Violence @ A Glance, is supported by a university think tank that is funded by the military, and by philanthropies that include the Carnegie Corporation and the Charles Koch Foundation.

[22] George Martin Fell Brown, “Venezuela: for mass mobilization of workers to build real socialism and put an end to corrupt bureaucracy!”, Socialist Alternative, January 24, 2019.

[23] Chenoweth, Civil Resistance, p.136.

A Mistaken Take on Revolutionary Strategy, the Case of 1905

Capitalism is drenched from head to foot in the blood of the working class. This is one reason why socialists believe that if we are to rid ourselves of this murderous system then we must mobilise the full weight of our class against all our oppressors: mass revolutionary struggle is the order of the day. At the same time, we must acknowledge that the capitalist class will use always use violence to defend their pernicious system from democratic accountability. So, if we are serious about cleansing our world of a political system that looks more favourably upon fascism than socialism, workers must be able to defend themselves while struggling for this change.

To date the most important revolutionary movement that wrested power from the powerful and placed it firmly in the hands of organised workers was the Russian Revolution of October 1917. As such critical lessons can be learned from this historic event. First off, we should note that the transfer of power to the Russian masses is commonly disparaged by its ideological opponents as representing a coup d’état that was carried through by a small band of revolutionaries. This is a lie: because the October Revolution’s success was built upon the power of a genuine mass movement of millions. Secondly, the Revolution is presented by its critics as an act of violent bloodletting when it was nothing of the sort. The real violence came through the capitalist counterrevolution. Rather than let Russia’s democratic workers’ state remain intact, more than twenty foreign states unleashed a vicious civil war on the Russian people.

Violence on trial

In recent years one of the most influential books to create a false equivalence between state violence and the determined resistance of armed workers is Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall’s A Force More Powerful: A Century of Non-violent Conflict (St Martin’s Press, 2015). Written by two State Department theoreticians, this mammoth tome celebrates a hundred years of mass struggles for justice – which, as the authors admit, have taken place against a backdrop of “wars, genocide, carpet bombing, and terror”. Their book’s primary objective, however, is highly problematic, as the authors seek to convince their readers that capitalist democracy is the only remedy for oppression, and that non-violent tactics alone are the most effective method for ensuring such change.

Perhaps of most interest to socialists, the first (and longest) chapter of A Force More Powerful deals with the Russian Revolution of 1905. Lenin famously referred to this titanic year of struggle like this: “Without the ‘dress rehearsal’ of 1905, the victory of the October Revolution in 1917 would have been impossible.” Ackerman and DuVall beg to differ and summarise this mass uprising like this:

“When Lenin wrote from Geneva before the march [led by Father Gapon] on the Winter Palace [in January 1905] that the people had to be armed to secure their liberty, he would soon be disproved, as strikes and nonviolent resistance frustrated the regime at almost every turn and opened the way for constitutional change. But he and his party went right on believing it.

“The Marxists were wrong, of course. The sponsors of violence in 1905 derailed the Russian people’s first genuine assertion of democratic power in their history. Moreover, violence in 1905 sowed the seeds for violence in 1917, creating then a new regime dedicated even more systematically than the Tsar’s to violence as the basis for state power.”

But it is Ackerman and DuVall who are wrong, of course. The sponsors of the violence in 1917 were the capitalists. In the five years succeeding the revolution the armies of more than twenty foreign nations waged a bloody civil war that decimated the fledging workers’ state, liquidating millions of lives and depleting the revolutionary state of most of their leading activists. It was this ultra-violence that helped lay the groundwork for Stalin’s eventual seizure of power and the flourishing of Stalin’s anti-democratic regime. With Stalin’s betrayal of socialist ideals being encouraged by capitalist elites but bravely resisted by real revolutionaries like Leon Trotsky and thousands of others who made up the Left Opposition. Yet genuine Marxists, following in the tradition of Trotsky, have always been clear that there can be no political short-cuts on the path to socialism. The only way for the working-class to assume power is when they themselves rise-up in their millions to smash our chains of capitalist exploitation.

The authors of A Force More Powerful as forthright defenders of capitalisms global beneficence have set themselves the unenviable task of falsifying history by proving that nonviolence is the only force capable of extracting meaningful reforms from violent elites. “Tyrants were toppled, governments were overthrown, occupying armies were impeded, and political systems that withheld human rights were shattered,” all successes that were apparently obtained through nonviolent collection action alone. Furthermore, what Ackerman and DuVall refuse to mention is that most of the case studies provided in their book demonstrate how the working-class have been forced to topple violent capitalist-backed dictatorships.

Of police unions and nonviolence

In setting out their pacifying history of social change, A Force More Powerful begins with a forensic, if deeply flawed, interpretation of the 1905 revolution — a historic event which in the hands of Ackerman and DuVall places overwhelming emphasis on the role of a single act of mass nonviolence that kicked off an epic year of struggle. They surmise: “In 1905 an Orthodox priest, Georgii Gapon, persuaded 150,000 workers to walk the icy streets of Russia’s ancient capital in the century’s first public challenge to autocratic power. He ignited mass action nationwide that led to the country’s first popularly elected national parliament.” But herein lies the first example of the authors nonviolent distortions: first off, this was not the centuries first public action challenging the Tsar’s despotism, the entire country of 150 million people had been in turmoil for decades. And second, while it is true that this mass act of civil disobedience did ignite a revolutionary upsurge, the result of that year of bloody struggle was the creation of a toothless parliament with the Tsar still safely ensconced at its helm. The other major response of the Russian state to the 1905 uprising was to release a new wave of terror upon the masses, cojoined by a new wave of anti-Jewish pogroms. That is why the real victory for workers came not after this first struggle for emancipation, but after the subsequent waves of mass resistance that finally allowed workers to take power in October 1917.

Nevertheless, after getting off to an inaccurate start, the opening chapter of the book does go some way towards correcting itself. It beginsby foregrounding the immense violence of the Tsar’s Christian fiefdom, noting how governors of the state “could order anyone detained without trial, and associations or clubs of the most innocent kind could be forbidden. Autocracy, in short, meant that there were no rights.” Yes, in the preceding decades ordinary people had attempted “to liberate the country from absolutism” but to no avail. Some of these underground groups in desperation therefore turned to acts of individual terror, with a focus on assassinating political opponents. And as Ackerman and DuVall observe, “a new terrorist group, the ‘Battle Organization’ of the Socialist Revolutionary (SR) Party, had become active after the turn of the century.” In their next sentence however, the authors correctly acknowledge that genuine Marxists – like those in the tradition of the leaders of the October 1917 revolution — rejected such terroristic tactics. They write: “Other radicals rejected terrorism and tried instead to organize peasants or workers for popular uprisings. Marxist ideas tempted many young people, and socialists had agitated among workers in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and elsewhere since the 1890s.”

Father Gapon

With the Tsar inhabiting an alternative universe imbued with the tradition of plebian bloodletting, it is understandable why the head of the Russian Empire felt his authoritarian rule would remain immune from the organising efforts of the masses. But other members of the ruling-class were more cognisant of the growing threat posed by ordinary people and “feared that the state would lose ground to revolutionaries in the battle for workers’ allegiance.” “Strikes in St. Petersburg, and the involvement of Marxist activists in organizing them,” thus had a clarifying effect upon the minds of those few ruler’s conscious of this growing democratic threat. This led Sergei Zubatov, who was the head of the political police in Moscow, to set out to undermine the Marxists’ in a novel way by creating “state-sponsored mutual aid societies” which were run “under the supervision of police agents.”

By 1902 Zubatov had been transferred to St. Petersburg which soon brought him into a working relationship with the now famous Father Gapon. The priest was not altogether stupid and saw the limitations of Zubatov’s police-centred approach — which for obvious reasons did not engender the trust of most workers — and subsequently he created a more sophisticated version of such police unions. In late 1903 Gapon thus chose to launch his Assembly of Russian Factory and Mill Workers having “convinced officials…to keep the police out of day-to-day operations of the Assembly.” In contrast to genuine democratic organs of the working-class, however, it is critical to note that this new Assembly was under the total and conspiratorial control of just one person, Father Gapon.

Igniting a revolution: the nonviolence of Bloody Sunday

With the working-class striving for their collective freedom from despotism, the priest’s efforts to provide a pro-Tsarist alternative to democratically-run trade unions were never going to be easy for one person to control, and soon Gapon’s work to misdirect the working-class became overwhelmed by the democratic impulses of his deeply frustrated members. “In early December four Assembly members who worked at the giant Putilov metal factory, the largest industrial plant in Russia, were fired or threatened with firing.” This attack had the effect of forcing Gapon’s hand, because if he couldn’t convince the employer to reinstate his members, he would lose the trust of the thousands of the members of his now powerful Assembly. The bullying factory bosses were evidently not as politically sophisticated as the priest and so refused to reinstate the four workers. And although under Gapon’s pacifying leadership the Assembly had made a principle out of opposing all strikes, events soon overtook the priest, such that the “only thing left was the sanction of last resort: a strike.” Now the workers added more demands, demands that Gapon’s Assembly had adopted as a direct result of the influence of former Marxist organisers who had helped popularise the work of the Assembly. Aleksei Karelin, for instance, succeeded in pushing forward socialist demands within the Assembly, having already helped fill-out the ranks of the Assembly because of the “’unshakeable authority’ [he maintained] among the city’s factory workers”.

“On Sunday, January 2, 6,000 Putilov workers met at the Assembly’s Narva branch and voted to strike the next day to protest the firings. By Tuesday they had closed down the plant and idled over 12,000 workers. Their demands: rehiring the fired workers, a board of workers’ representatives to oversee pay rates, an eight-hour day, the end of overtime work, and free medical care. Putilov strikers began to make the rounds of other factories, and by the end of the week, over 110,000 workers at more than 400 factories in St. Petersburg had joined the strike.”

Still, with no sign of the bosses backing down, and with the credibility of his Assembly at stake, Gapon, under the pressure of events beyond his control now felt compelled to declare that he would lead a peaceful march on the Winter Palace. And it was on this march that he planned to present a petition to the Tsar that demanded justice for all workers. Gapon it seems believed that the Tsar would have to listen — after all he wasn’t demanding a revolution, quite the contrary, his Assembly had always actively supported the Tsar’s rule. But the 150,000 strong protest, as we now know – which took place on Sunday, January 9 — and was tragically drowned in the blood of workers… hence its name, Bloody Sunday.

Wojciech Kossak: Petersburg KoneserKrakow

In the events leading up to this historic protest Marxists had warned their fellow workers that the peaceful march would be repressed, so they had urged attendees that they should be prepared to defend themselves if necessary. But with Gapon’s influence in ascendence among the masses, revolutionaries lost this important argument, and with much trepidation these same Marxists joined the march that was headed towards inevitable state violence. The result: by the end of the day, hundreds, if not thousands, lay slaughtered in the streets, but a revolution had been ignited.

“Making hollow the Tsar’s claim that he adored his people, the regime’s violence on Bloody Sunday accomplished what revolutionary agitation could not. The hope of St. Petersburg’s workers that their ruler heard their cries for justice or would act on their behalf was ravaged. No one voiced his outrage more plainly than Father Gapon.”

At an emergency meeting held on the night of the massacre, Gapon, now disguised to present his arrest “shouted out, ‘Peaceful means have failed! … Now we must go over to other means!’” However, when the violent-minded priest (now shorn of his familiar beard) “was recognized, the meeting flew into an uproar, and he fled through the back door—and then into foreign exile, no longer part of the movement he had helped create.”

Valentin Serov: Where is your glory, soldiers? – Bloody Sunday

When a priest allies with terrorists

Although not discussed by the authors of A Force More Powerful, Gapon would now join the ranks of the leading (non-Marxist) group utilising terrorism, the Socialist-Revolutionaries. And when he finally returned to Russia in late 1905 – at the height of the revolutionary movement – Gapon soon dropped his SR friends to intervene in the revolution on behalf of the Tsar. This neglected part of Gapon’s career is discussed in the book that Ackerman and DuVall relied heavily upon in writing their own chapter, this being Abraham Ascher’s The Revolution of 1905: Russia in Disarray (Stanford University Press, 1988). Within this text we find further highly significant details about Gapon’s anti-democratic intrigues.

It is apparent that despite Gapon’s best intentions to help his royal friends, the Tsar’s governors had insisted that Gapon would serve a more useful role for them back in Western Europe. Thus after his return to Russia Gapon was dispatched back to Europe where he…

“…assumed the role of a leader of a resurgent loyal workers’ movement. He attracted maximum publicity in the press by appealing to workers to avoid violence and by assailing the extremism of the revolutionary parties. He even spoke favorably of [the authoritarian government minister Sergei] Witte as the only man capable of saving Russia from the abyss.” (Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, p.99)

It was only in late December that Gapon was allowed to return to Russia, where he re-established connections with both the police and with the prominent SR leader Petr Rutenberg. Gapon of course hadn’t changed, and he now tried to persuade Rutenberg to enter into a bizarre conspiracy that would enable the SRs to get 100,000 rubles from the police. Rutenberg then “talked to E.F. Azef, the then head of the [SR] party’s ‘Combat Organization’ and later exposed as a police agent, who insisted Gapon must be killed.”[i] This intrigue soon led to Gapon’s execution. And the Russian people, who had initially been part of the priest’s covert power play, now had to wait until 1917 for an end to the Tsar’s despotic rule.

In the intervening years it is worth highlighting that it was Marxists who had argued most vigorously against the SRs advocacy of terrorism. And when Azef’s true identity as a police spy was finally revealed in 1909 it was Leon Trotsky who, in his popular article “The bankruptcy of terrorism,” reiterated how it is always those with “a lack of confidence in the revolutionary masses” that drift towards using such defeatist and counter-revolutionary violence as individual terrorism.

Self-defence within a revolutionary explosion

Returning now to the events of Bloody Sunday: no-one was prepared for the explosion of working-class anger that led to and followed on from the peaceful march on the Winter Palace. Nevertheless, general strikes now spread across the entire nation, injecting new life into the class struggle — actions which vindicated all those Marxist organisers who had spent years popularising such militant forms of industrial action. Indeed as Trotsky correctly observed: “Gapon did not create the revolutionary energy of the workers of St. Petersburg; he merely released it, to his own surprise.”[ii]

Gapon had unwittingly set-in chain a series of events that shook the world — demonstrating once and for all where the real power lies in society, with the people. Yet not everyone agreed with such analyses, not least Russia’s liberal intellectuals who most of all feared the consequences of unleashing the democratic power and aspirations of the working-class. Commenting on the nonsense of these intellectuals’ concerns, Trotsky pointed out how:

“The liberals persisted for a long time in the belief that the entire secret of the events of January 9 lay in Gapon’s personality. It contrasted him with the [Marxist] Social Democrats as though he were a political leader who knew the secret of controlling the masses and they a doctrinaire sect. In doing so they forgot that January 9 would not have taken place if Gapon had not encountered several thousand politically conscious workers who had been through the school of socialism. These men immediately formed an iron ring around him, a ring from which he could not have broken loose even if he had wanted to. But he made no attempt to break loose. Hypnotized by his own success, he let himself be carried by the waves.”

With Gapon fleeing to exile and with strikes and peasant uprisings convulsing the nation, Marxists continued to argue for a more democratic means of coordinating this almighty display of popular resistance. State violence was of course a norm that workers knew that they had to put up with (for the time being anyway). So, workers armed themselves in self-defence, not because Marxists forced or tricked them into adopting violent countermeasures, but because they were left with no option if they wanted to survive.[iii]

Demonstrating the serious threat posted to life by the Tsar’s militarism, the authors of A Force More Powerful explainhowon February 17 the government of St. Petersburg “declared martial law in Georgia and sent in 10,000 soldiers” to crush the “self-governing peasant republic” of Guriia. Such a full-frontal attack was deemed necessary because the peasants there had been in democratic control of their own affairs for the past few years. Panicking at the peasants spreading influence, the government now sought to extinguish their rebellion where “all power… was in the hands of the Guriian Social Democratic Committee, which held weekly public meetings featuring unrestrained debate.”

In recounting this story about an inspiring democratic movement that was led by Marxists, Ackerman and DuVall however twist it to serve the opposite purpose, with the rebellion apparently proving Leo Tolstoy’s pacificist maxims. “Rather than looking to the government to help them, Tolstoy said, or attacking the authorities, they [the peasants of Guriia] were simply making themselves independent of their rulers.” A Force More Powerful’s ‘historians’ ignore the fact that the Marxist-led peasant republic was more than capable of using violence to defend itself, just as they had done in early 1906 when the Tsar finally succeeded in crushing this insurrection. It is also worth pointing out that when the Tsar had sent in the 10,000 troops in February 1905 to behead the uprising the military had proved powerless in the face of a determined mass movement that was prepared to defend itself. Indeed, if we refer to the source that Ackerman and DuVall draw upon in making their lopsided argument, we learn that the troops…

“…spent four months in the region without launching an attack. Not only did the rebellious peasants enjoy enormous support, but [General] Alikhanov-Avarskii feared that his troops would fraternize with them. In July he withdrew his forces completely, only to return in October to assault the insurgents in earnest. But it was not until January 1906, when the government was reasserting its authority throughout the Empire, that the insurrection in Georgia was fully crushed, and then only after much blood had been shed.” (Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, pp.154-5)[iv]

In yet another example of workers organising militant industrial action A Force More Powerful goes on to highlight a dispute which marked the formation of what is widely hailed as the first forerunner of the peoples’ Soviets.

“In Ivanovo-Voznesensk, a major textile center, more than 30,000 workers went out on strike on May 12. Workers from each factory elected representatives to an Assembly of Delegates, which conducted negotiations for the strikers. It drew up a list of demands, including an eight-hour day, higher wages, maternity leave, and freedom of speech and assembly, and it formed a militia to prevent violence. Only after troops attacked workers at a meeting in late May, whipping many and killing a few, did the strike turn violent: For eight days workers rioted, looted, and scuffled in the streets with police and soldiers. The strike dragged on until the end of June, when employers, under pressure from authorities, offered a few minor concessions and exhausted strikers returned to their jobs.”[v]

Although these workers failed to win most of their stated goals, this heroic struggle inspired workers far and wide particularly because of the successful formation of their democratic assembly of Deputies. Moreover, “Outside the Kingdom of Poland, it was the longest and most disciplined strike between January and October.” And most significantly, the request by the Assembly of Delegates to form an armed workers militia was prohibited by the Tsar because it effectively represented a demand “for police powers, which was even more threatening to the authorities than the demands for freedom of speech and assembly.” (Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, p.150.) So, considering the murderous response of government officials throughout 1905 and beyond it is entirely understandable why workers demanded that they had a democratic right to defend themselves.

Tsardom on the brink of collapse

Strikes and protests now continued to develop across the nation (albeit sporadically), and by August the Tsar, forced by mass pressure, very reluctantly approved the formation of a consultative assembly, or Duma. This was too little too late, and the limited suffrage on offer meant “that in St. Petersburg, a city of over a million people, only about 7,000 would be eligible to vote.” Little wonder the workers were not overly impressed. When a printer’s strike then broke out in Moscow in mid-September it didn’t take long for the dispute to spread, and Ackerman and DuVall observe that soon workers “elected deputies to a council, called a ‘soviet,’ to coordinate the strike” – a strike that had spread to St. Petersburg by the beginning of October. At the same time a rail strike took the entire country by storm and “acted as a catalyst for a general strike that suspended urban life in much of the Russian empire.” Now with the collective experience gained since Bloody Sunday, workers were embarking on a political strike of historic proportions. On this development Ackerman and DuVall point out that:

“Even as they were acting together with other citizens in the general strike, the workers of St. Petersburg were setting themselves apart, as a force to defy the regime. The Menshevik faction of the Social Democrats [which included Trotsky] had been pressing workers since the summer to form grass-roots organizations. Instead of waiting for the state to grant reforms, the Mensheviks wanted workers to take the initiative and develop their own institutions, as popular movements would do in nonviolent conflicts later in the century. On October 10 they called on workers in the capital to elect deputies to form the Petersburg General Workers’ Committee. Three days later 40 deputies went to the Committee’s first meeting; by the third meeting two days later, there were 266 deputies from almost 100 factories as well as a number of unions. On October 17 the Committee voted to rename itself the St. Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies.”

Now “the [revolutionary] socialists found themselves in the forefront of a people’s movement”; and “None of them had a higher profile than Leon Trotsky… [who] became a leader among the city’s revolutionaries and a key strategist in the Soviet.” Yet despite these kind words for Trotsky’s leadership skills, the authors of A Force More Power are intent on blaming Trotsky and other Marxists for imposing violence upon what they believe was an otherwise organically nonviolent mass movement. Ackerman and DuVall therefore berate the leaders of the Soviet – most of whom, we should remember, were not Marxists like Trotsky – for forgetting “that the strike had spread easily because it was nonviolent”. Of course, strikes were usually nonviolent, so long as they were not being attacked by the state; but when threatened we should be clear that most workers were prepared to defend themselves, and so it is entirely disingenuous to pretend that it was just the revolutionaries who argued that workers should be armed.

It is also critical to emphasize that the actions taken by the Soviet were done so in the most democratic fashion in contrast to Father Gapon’s Tsarist escapades. Ackerman and DuVall admit as much: “While the Assembly had been run from the top by Father Gapon and his circle, the Soviet’s members were enamored of doing things democratically.” Moreover, while the two authors, as determined advocates of nonviolence, believe that violence should play no role in mass movements, they argue that “the Soviet helped make the October general strike into a vibrant nonviolent campaign, the century’s first.” This is true, but at the same time Marxists always argued that peaceful strikes alone would never be enough to bring an end to the oppression faced by the working-class. 

Resistance amidst pogroms

State violence never relented in its attempts to obliterate the workers’ movement throughout 1905, and on October 12 the Tsar demanded that the governor-general put up signs in the streets saying “I have ordered the troops and police to suppress any such attempt [to create disorders] immediately and in the most decisive manner [and] upon a show of resistance to this on the part of the crowd—not to fire blank volleys and not to spare cartridges.” “The public were not intimidated,” as Ackerman and DuVall recognised, and the people responded by taking control of the streets. This meant that on the day the Tsar’s message was put out in St. Petersburg “40,000 people demonstrated in the streets”. As if were not bad enough for the Tsar, as the days went on it became apparent that the ruling-class was increasingly losing control over his own repressive state apparatus. This became clear when the Tsar “opted for a crackdown [on October 17] and asked the Grand Duke Nikolai to assume the responsibilities of military dictator.” But the Duke refused, and with the Tsar’s authority visibly collapsing the despot was forced by the pressure of the masses on the streets to finally offer them his “October Manifesto” for reform (also on October 17).

Revolutionaries recognised this about face for the weakness that it was, and urged Russian workers onwards, to demand more, and to organise so they could oust the Tsar and seize the reins of power for themselves. Contrast this reaction with the liberal trend of analysis presented in A Force More Powerful which predictably sides with the Tsar, not the masses. Hence the two authors blithely assert that the mass revolutionary movement should have immediately dissolved itself, resting happy that the people had won something positive from the despot. And at this stage, in order to denigrate the revolutionary’s insistence that workers press on and fight for the end of absolutism, Ackerman and DuVall refer to the short shrift Trotsky gave to the Tsar’s Manifesto.

“From a university balcony, Leon Trotsky insisted to a horde of workers and students flying red banners that the struggle was not over. ‘Citizens! Now that we have got the ruling clique with its back against the wall, they promise us freedom,’ Trotsky bellowed. ‘Is the promise of liberty the same as liberty itself? … With sword in hand we must stand guard over our freedom. As for the Tsar’s manifesto, look, it’s only a scrap of paper. Here it is before you—here it is crumpled in my fist. Today they have issued it, tomorrow they will take it away and tear it into pieces, just as I am now tearing up this paper freedom before your eyes!’”

Not wanting to knit-pick, but Ackerman and DuVall’s decision to use a derogatory word like horde is noteworthy, as in this instance Trotsky was speaking to a 100,000 strong crowd of citizens who were fighting for their futures against a regime that had showed time and time again that it had no respect for human life. Moreover, the working-class had good reasons for not trusting the Tsar at his word. This is because at exactly the same time that the Tsar’s Manifesto was released (on October 17) the Tsar had imposed “a torrent of violence” upon the people. “The police tolerated and, in some cases, encouraged” this mayhem, the authors of A Force More Powerful remind us. “Right-wing crowds called ‘Black Hundreds’ roved Moscow and St. Petersburg for days,” Ackerman and DuVall continue, “smashing shop windows, and beating and sometimes killing students, workers, and others suspected of revolutionary activity.”

Thus, “precisely at the moment when the autocracy was at its weakest, when it had been compelled to grant it first major concession, the defenders of the old order unleashed their most intense and ferocious attack on the advocates of change.” (Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, p.253) The depth of this violence knew few ends, and just months later (in February 1906) it was publicly revealed by the Director of Police in the Ministry of Internal Affairs “that in October and November 1905 a secret press in the police headquarters in the capital [St. Petersburg] had printed ‘thousands of proclamations’ urging ‘all true Russians to ruse and exterminate all foreigners, Jews, Armenians, etc. and all those who were advocates of reform and talked of restricting the autocratic power of the Sovereign.’ It also emerged that General Trepov had personally made corrections on the proofs of some of the proclamations.” (Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, p.259)

An insurrectionary moment

A state-sanctioned rage that was propelled forward by the Tsar and his noblemen now ravaged the entire country from October onwards. The monarch was not known for being either rational or reasonable, and Ackerman and DuVall spotlight his reactionary nature when they write:

“The Tsar took heart from right-wing appeals. The ‘whole mass of loyal people,’ he wrote to his mother on October 27, were lashing out against the small number of ‘bad people’ who had led them astray, including ‘the kikes’ but also Russian intellectuals and agitators.”

If not clear to the above authors, it was abundantly apparent to millions of oppressed Russians that democracy could only be won by ending the Tsar’s oppressive regime; indeed, Ackerman and DuVall were right when they said: “if they stopped fighting as the Tsar was on the ropes, they could forfeit the chance for an even larger victory.” Such a victory however was never going to be inaugurated by simply striking or pleading peacefully outside of the Tsar’s Palace. Vivid memories of what had happened when 150,000 people had marched to the Winter Palace were already etched into the working-classes memories, as were a hundred other acts of brutality. It was widely understood that the Tsar was not going to hand over power without a fight, and so it was logical that socialists would argue that his regime could only be ousted by a democratic and armed uprising of the masses: a strategic decision that was democratically affirmed by the St. Petersburg Soviet the day after the October Manifesto had been announced.[vi]

It is worth dwelling on the point that violence harnessed to a democratic movement is an entirely different phenomena to the violence welded by an autocratic regime or to the violence used by individual terrorists. Revolutionaries start from the premise that it is legitimate and necessary for workers to defend themselves. This is important as the masses need to able to organise the type of nonviolent protests/strikes that can allow the working-class to assert their authority over their oppressors.

But when Marxists talk about the need for armed workers and for an armed insurrection, they are not fetishizing violence. They are merely accepting what is objectively necessary to pass from capitalist brutality to a socialist democracy. Marxists are categorical that only when the majority of people want to oust their rulers — or are at least sympathetic to such action – can a minority-led insurrection ever be instigated. This is no coup. It is at that decisive moment that power can and must be wrested from the oppressors to allow workers to control their futures. But even then, the success of any revolution remains dependent on winning the backing of the military, persuading them, by dint of the widespread support on the streets and by the masses unswerving will to win, that they should transfer their allegiance to the insurrection. It is by following such a revolutionary strategy, that, with next to no blood being spilt, the Bolshevik’s were able to seize power in October 1917.

Nevertheless, Ackerman and DuVall assert that because revolutionaries like Trotsky had insisted that the Tsar would not hand over power to the majority without a fight, it was the formers advocacy of violent means that meant they were to blame for the violence that continued to befall the people. Yet at the risk of sounding repetitive, the nonviolent provocateurs are wrong in demanding that workers who are engaged in a mass struggle for democracy must be entirely peaceful. Ackerman and DuVall might as well demand that the Tsar renounce his life’s work and become a pacifist instead! But we know the real reason why the same two authors would never place such a ridiculous demand upon the Tsar; it is because they know that the Tsar would never give-up his ability to crush his mortal enemies — the masses who were the true harbingers of a new democratic order.

In 1905 a revolutionary situation did exist, and everything was to play for, and workers had no choice but to redouble their fight to win their struggle against despotism. As Trotsky put it:

“What was there left for the Soviet to do? Pretend that it did not see the conflict as inevitable? Make believe that it was organizing the masses for the future joys of a constitutional regime? Who would have believed it? Certainly not absolutism, and certainly not the working class.

“The example of the two Dumas was to show us later how useless outwardly correct conduct – empty forms of loyalty – are in the struggle against absolutism. In order to anticipate the tactics of ‘constitutional’ hypocrisy in an autocratic country, the Soviet would have had to be made of different stuff. But where would that have led? To the same end as that of the two Dumas: to bankruptcy.

“There was nothing left for the Soviet to do but recognize that a clash in the immediate future was inevitable; it could choose no other tactics but those of preparing for insurrection.”

We should also be mindful that a violent insurrection in 1905, if it had been successful, would have caused far less violence than the continuation of the Tsar’s regime. If successful, a mass insurrection would have succeeded in winning the military to its side just as the peoples’ movement did in October 1917. The workers had to move forward. Thus, to return to Trotsky’s analysis of 1905.

“[I]in a developing revolutionary situation a planned retreat is, from the start, unthinkable. A party may have the masses behind it while it is attacking, but that does not mean that it will be able to lead them away at will in the midst of the attack. It is not only the party that leads the masses: the masses, in turn, sweep the party forward. And this will happen in any revolution, however powerful its organization. Given such conditions, to retreat without battle may mean the party abandoning the masses under enemy fire.”

Although it may have been true that the objective conditions in 1905 were not conducive to a successful revolution, what we do know is that military revolts and mutinies had been a persistent feature of this joyous year of mass struggle. Moreover, a revolutionary movement does not have the luxury of waiting until the military has been completely won over before striking their collective blow for freedom. Again, as Trotsky reminds us:

“The army’s political mood, that great unknown of every revolution, can be determined only in the process of a clash between the soldiers and the people. The army’s crossing over to the camp of the revolution is a moral process; but it cannot be brought about by moral means alone. Different motives and attitudes combine and intersect within the army; only a minority is consciously revolutionary, while the majority hesitates and awaits an impulse from outside. This majority is capable of laying down its arms or, eventually, of pointing its bayonets at the reaction only if it begins to believe in the possibility of a people’s victory. Such a belief is not created by political agitation alone. Only when the soldiers become convinced that the people have come out into the streets for a life-and-death struggle – not to demonstrate against the government but to overthrow it – does it become psychologically possible for them to ‘cross over to the side of the people.’”

Blame cannot lie with the participants of the St. Petersburg Soviet who democratically debated their options and determined that an armed insurrection was necessary, and that they must establish an armed militia — a force of ordinary workers who, in this case, exerted significant positive influence over the Tsar’s police.[vii] Yes, with the benefit of experience the struggle might have been waged more effectively. But Ackerman and DuVall always know better, and despite acknowledging that “In the six weeks following October 17, there were well over a hundred military mutinies”,[viii] they insist on lecturing the leaders of the revolution by saying: “If soldiers and sailors had been recruited methodically to join the opposition in 1905, the government’s means of coercion might have been less reliable when it chose to crack down”.

Petrograd Soviet Assembly meeting in 1917

Why not settle for reforms?

Of course we should not really expect any political insight into matters of revolutionary struggle from Ackerman and DuVall. This is because both authors are diehard defenders of capitalism and remain doggedly opposed to the socialist transformation of society. This defence of the indefensible helps explain why they write: “If the movement against the Tsar had capitalized on certain key opportunities, Nicholas [the despotic Tsar] might have been pressed to enlarge the scope of reform, averting the sequence of events that led to the Bolshevik revolution twelve years later.” Always prioritising reform over revolution, the capitalist-loving authors likewise blame the 1905 opponents of the Tsar’s anti-democratic regime for not “embrac[ing] the October Manifesto as the breakthrough it was—an admission that the people possessed power and inherent rights—rather than as a set of half measures to be disdained…”

Ilya Repin: Funeral of the Revolutionaries, 1905-1906

Ackerman and DuVall are now on a roll. If the mass movements, and the revolutionaries among them, had simply called off the struggle and accepted the Tsar’s pledge to reform his despotism then “the friends of reform inside the palace might have persuaded the Tsar that repression was unneeded.” Hence by not accepting the word of the Tsar at face value the two gurus of nonviolence are confident that the real people at fault in misleading the revolution were the hot-headed radicals; “violence from the right and overconfidence on the left sabotaged this opening.” An opening to what? Do the authors really believe that if revolutionaries had simply given up then the Tsar would have inflicted less violence upon them. Maybe the hate-filled Tsar might have even called off the pogroms.

But if we are to defend the actions of the revolutionaries in their decision to refuse to cooperate with the Tsar we can simply turn to one of the main books that Ackerman and DuVall repeatedly leant on in writing A Force More Powerful. This book is Abraham Ascher’s The Revolution of 1905, a book which makes it clear that it was not just hot-headed radicals who rejected the October Manifesto as a farce.

“Far from pacifying the population, the October Manifesto triggered disorders more violent and widespread than any that had occurred since the beginning of the revolution. Witte’s attempts to detach the moderate liberals from the opposition movement ended in failure.” (Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, p.273)

In fact, “During the Days of Liberty, stretching from October 18 until early December… the left in fact did succeed in greatly strengthening its forces…” Trotsky’s militant writings were particularly popular amongst the residents of St. Petersburg, and Russkaia gazeta, the newspaper he coedited, “appeared in print runs of over 100,000 copies.” (Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, p.275, p.276)

Ilya Repin: Demonstration on the Seventeenth of October 1905

Revolutionary lessons

What we do know is that socialists of all hues were able to grasp many vital lessons from the unexpected revolutionary upsurge of 1905, hard-won lessons that were gained through collective action and that proved essential in enabling the successful revolution of 1917. But again, we need to correct the deliberate historical distortions that have been repeated ad infinitum over the past century by commentators who insist the revolution was violence personified; no matter that the death toll of the revolution was minuscule. Furthermore, in the short-term the success of October 1917 helped bring an end to orgy of violence that was World War One, a needless bloodbath whose foremost critics had been radical revolutionaries (see for example Trotsky’s best-selling 1914 pamphlet “The War and the International”). The structural violence of capitalism was further demonstrated in the wake of the 1917 revolution, which saw twenty-one capitalist states support the White Armies counterrevolutionary forces. Although this civil war was eventually defeated, the violence inflicted upon the people’s democratic and socialist state stole the lives of around seven million people.

Marxists not pacifists are the foremost proponents of “drawing on the power of the people” (Ackerman and DuVall’s words) to build mass movements for socialist change. Marxists however do not accept that capitalists will give up their control of our class-riven society without a fight. We want to act to ensure the socialist transformation of political relations worldwide. And socialists believe that workers will need to be able to defend themselves. It would be nice if this were not necessary, but history has shown that capitalists are quite effective at crushing workers movements through force; and flowers and nice words are never enough to see off an enemy whose entire economic and political system rests upon a bedrock of violence. At the same time socialists remain determined fighters for reforms within capitalism; but we always make it clear that such reforms will always be taken away from workers as long as the ruling-class directs society. That is why alongside fighting for reforms we argue for the need for democratic workers’ control of the state. But when the workers’ movement is strong enough, there can be no avoiding it — our class will need to seize power to rid ourselves of capitalism’s toxic priorities for ever more.

[i] The full story of Gapon’s anti-democratic intrigue involving Rutenberg are recounted in Walter Sablinsky’s The Road To Bloody Sunday: Father Gapon And The St. Petersburg Massacre of 1905 (Princeton University Press, 1976), pp.305-22. This book is also used as a source in Ackerman and DuVall’s own text.

[ii] Leon Trotsky, 1905 (first published in German in 1909). This book is also used as a source in Ackerman and DuVall’s own text if only to attack Trotsky and mispresent socialist ideas.

[iii] Writing in January 1905 in an article responding to Bloody Sunday Lenin explained: “The government deliberately drove the proletariat to revolt, provoked it, by the massacre of unarmed people, to erect barricades, in order to drown the uprising in a sea of blood. The proletariat will learn from these military lessons afforded by the government. For one thing, it will learn the art of civil war, now that it has started the revolution. Revolution is war. Of all the wars known in history it is the only lawful, rightful, just, and truly great war. This war is not waged in the selfish interests of a handful of rulers and exploiters, like any and all other wars, but in the interests of the masses of the people against the tyrants, in the interests of the toiling and exploited millions upon millions against despotism and violence.” Lenin, “The plan of the St. Petersburg battle,” Vperyod, January 31, 1905.

[iv] Contrast this summary of events with that served up by Ackerman and DuVall, who stated in full: “On February 18 the government declared martial law in Georgia and sent in 10,000 soldiers. Since 1903 peasants in the remote Guriia region had not been heeding any government authority. They refused to pay taxes and burned portraits of the Tsar; they also killed a few officials (whom the gravediggers would not bury, as part of the boycott). All power in Guriia was in the hands of the Guriian Social Democratic Committee, which held weekly public meetings featuring unrestrained debate. In effect, Guriia had become a self-governing peasant republic. The great novelist Leo Tolstoy, who had long preached noncooperation with state power, wrote to a Georgian follower, telling him that the Guriians were doing exactly what he had been writing and thinking about for over twenty years. Rather than looking to the government to help them, Tolstoy said, or attacking the authorities, they were simply making themselves independent of their rulers.”

[v] Ackerman and DuValll’s sole historical source for this section of their analysis is Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, pp.146-9.

[vi] “After the October Manifesto, revolutionaries took their bid for an armed uprising to the Soviet. The very next day, Nosar’ read deputies an executive committee resolution proposing that they arm themselves ‘for the final struggle,’ and Trotsky alerted them to prepare for ‘an even grander and more impressive attack on the staggering monarchy, which can be conclusively swept away only by a victorious popular uprising.’ The Soviet endorsed both the Nosar’ and Trotsky statements, but asking for the Tsar’s downfall inevitably separated the revolutionaries from their erstwhile allies the liberals, who disavowed any desire to overthrow the government.” (A Force More Powerful)

[vii] “The boldest undertaking of the Soviet was the establishment of its own militia, whose members, identified by special armbands, ‘interfered in the affairs of the police, gave… [them] orders and made demands of them.’” (Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, p.277)

[viii] “All told, 211 separate mutinies were recorded in the Russian army alone between late October and mid-December 1905… The elite corps, the Cavalry and Cossacks, were virtually untouched by mutiny, but one-third of all infantry units experienced some form of disturbance, and the navy was so riddled with disorders that the government feared that it could no longer be relied upon to carry out its mission.” (Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, p.272) Ascher goes on to note that the crushing of the revolution in mid-December changed the “psychology of the soldier and sailors… as suddenly and drastically as it had in mid-October. with the restoration of authority in the civilian sector, the men in uniform again submitted to the orders of their superiors.”  (p.273)

Why Kindness is Not Enough — The Limits of Humankind: A Hopeful History

Marxists have a realistic view of humanity. We believe that history is replete with examples demonstrating that our species strongest instinctual urges move us in the direction of cooperation not violence. At the same time, we understand that a small clique of self-centred individuals, the ruling-class, use their power to undermine our ability to work together. Hence socialists continue to organise collectively to fight for improvements in our classes daily living conditions with the aim of running society in a way that embraces the positive not the negative aspects of human nature.

With the advent of technologically advanced societies that by their nature are highly interdependent on one another, capitalisms survival, now more than ever, relies upon our division: hence the need for ruling-class propagandists to relentlessly emphasise our brutal natures to the exclusion of our caring habits. Elites repeat ad Infinium that there is no alternative to their preferred capitalist system – a bankrupt political and economic system that asserts the dominion of profit making over all other human priorities. And to justify this nonsense they need to assert that their preferred system is well adapted to harnessing humanities true biological inclinations which they characterise as being dominated by aggression and competition.

This is by no means a new debate and remains a perennial topic for discussion by those seeking to promote socialist change. Therefore, the publication of Rutger Bregman’s 2020 book Humankind: A Hopeful History provides us with a welcome opportunity to take a fresh look at ways of overcoming the daily violence that we all face because of capitalisms deeply pessimistic and ill-informed view of human nature.

Bregman, it turns out, largely agrees with the Marxist view of social murder as was outlined by Frederick Engels in 1845. He states that the “threat of very real violence” remains “pervasive” in democratic societies and it is this ever-present threat of violence that enables a small elite to police their capitalist free market. This is true, and as Bregman goes on to point out, to help legitimise this state violence a lot of effort is expended by the ruling-class to bolster the misconception that it is humans who are inherently violent not the state.

Flowing from these distortions, humanity must ostensibly be saved from our own darker natures. The radical and simple alternative to this lie is however “legitimised by virtually every branch of science” and represents “an idea that might just start a revolution” – this alternative, states Bregman, is “That most people, deep down, are pretty decent.” Hence the belief in the cooperative nature of humanity has been “denied by religions and ideologies, ignored by the news media and erased from the annals of world history.” Bregman concludes:

“For the powerful, a hopeful view of human nature is downright threatening. Subversive. Seditious. It implies that we’re not selfish beasts that need to be reined in, restrained and regulated. It implies that we need a different kind of leadership. A company with intrinsically motivated employees has no need of managers; a democracy with engaged citizens has no need of career politicians.”

Reclaiming hope from hate

In contrast to socialist ideas capitalism positively rewards violent behaviour, which explains why “egomaniacs and opportunists, narcissists and sociopaths,” as Bregman puts it, are the type of “utterly shameless” individuals who rule and dominate the world. So, understanding how these rulers justify their existence is a vital part of exposing the precarious nature of their power. Debunking the ideas that are marshalled by elites in their desperate attempts to cast the working-class in their own sociopathic image is therefore represents the most useful and hopeful part of Bregman’s book. Hence the first half of Humankind takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of how the ruling-class and their agents have had to distort the findings of scientific research (especially in human psychology) to serve their own interests.

Bregman begins with the ramblings of Gustave Le Bon and his famous book The Psychology of the Masses which was written as a response to the aristocratic classes fear of socialism and revolution. This well-known text essentially equated the collective actions of the working-class with mob-rule and the violent end of civilisation. The man in a crowd, as Le Bon put it, is but “a barbarian”, an “automaton who has ceased to be guided by his will.” Le Bon’s book thus provided an anti-democratic guide to many of the ruling-class politicians of the day. Bregman notes: “Hitler read the book cover to cover. So did Mussolini, Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt.” But such retrogressive views have not diminished among our rulers today. And while Bregman overstates the influence of such negative views upon ordinary people there is some truth in his analysis when he states:

“Today, this is still the prevailing view of crowd behaviour among politicians, commentators and the public at large. Most of us are convinced that crowds inhabit a psychological shadowland of primordial instincts and unrestraint, where individuals are stripped of their identity and led unthinking to violent and irrational acts.”

Yes, this may be the prevailing view amongst the ruling-class and their representatives, but we should emphasise that it is precisely through the organisation of collective action that the working-class in our crowds have wrought democratic reforms from the ruling-class, whether that be the right to vote, or the right to be a member of a trade union. This is a fight that continues today.

The denigration and dismissal of our class and of our methods of organising has always been critical to the maintenance of capitalist inequality. Even positive public responses to disasters are inverted to be used as a weapon against our better nature. One particularly disturbing example of this phenomena played out in the media reporting on the allegedly violent and criminal behaviours of the people of New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina tore through their communities and lives. Nothing however could be further from the truth as behind the lies of the capitalist press thousands of ordinary people collaborated to coordinate their survival efforts. For a counternarrative to the mainstream medias dark twisting of displays of human solidarity Bregman refers to Rebecca Solnit’s excellent book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (2009). In doing so he highlights her accurate conclusion “that elite panic [concerning the actions of ordinary people] comes from powerful people who see all humanity in their own image.”

Although many writers have previously debunked the lies that undergird elite panics about human society, Bregman brings fresh insights to many enduring myths. Take the example of William Golding’s post-war novel Lord of the Flies – a story of original sin that has become deeply etched into public consciousness: a story in which, we are told, we must fear the enemy that lurks within ourselves as opposed to the misanthropy that resides within our rulers. Yet the one true example that saw a group of children stranded alone on a desert island illustrated completely contrary lessons to those told in the novel. In the real-life Lord of the Flies it “turns out, [is] a heart-warming story – the stuff of bestselling novels, Broadway plays and blockbuster movies.” Yet as Bregman adds “It’s also a story that nobody knows.” Moreover, when the children in this tale were discovered living peacefully on a desert island on Sunday 11 September 1966 the first reaction of the authorities was to imprison the children for stealing the boat on which they launched their ill-fated expedition (see “The real Lord of the Flies: what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months”).

Bregman makes a good point when he observes that “you could look at the entire evolution of civilisation as a history of rulers who continually devised new justifications for their privileges.” And one individual who has made his career by promoting serviceable fictions for the establishment is the celebrity historian Jared Diamond, whose writings have popularised many capitalist myths include the tale about the fate of the people of Easter Island. In Diamond’s historic narrative the fate of the Islanders represents a classic Malthusian story of human greed – which allegedly demonstrates how communities devoid of strong capitalist leaders simply self-destruct. Diamond’s elite-friendly story is however completely wrong. The people of Easter Island were destroyed by outside forces of a very human nature. Ruling-class sailors first brought rats to the Island in 1722 – which helped undermine the Islanders’ ability to live sustainably. In later years Peruvian slave traders (who first arrived in 1862) then kidnapped their people, and when “international pressure” meant the Peruvian government was forced to return the few remaining living slaves back home, they returned them along with smallpox which “spread among the rest of the population, sowing death and destruction.” As this tragic tale of inversion were not bad enough these were “the very same slave traders who kidnapped the inhabitants of Ata (the island where the real-life Lord of the Flies would unfold a hundred years later).”

Bregman also turns his enlightening gaze to the toxic legacy of a variety of social psychologists (discussed in more depth a little later in this review). He illustrates how some of the most famous experiments that sought to provide explanatory frameworks for understanding human nature ended up reproducing the Hobbesian fictions of the past. He writes:

“In the years that Lord of the Flies topped the bestseller lists, a young researcher named Stanley Milgram demonstrated how obediently people follow the orders even of dubious authority figures (Chapter 8), while the murder of a young woman [Kitty Genovese] in New York City laid the basis for hundreds of studies on apathy in the modern age (Chapter 9). And then there were the experiments by psychology professors Muzafer Sherif and Philip Zimbardo (Chapter 7), who demonstrated that good little boys can turn into camp tyrants at the drop of a hat.”

Humankind consequently provides a service to humanity by delving into the recent academic literature scrutinizing these famous cases and demonstrates that despite their continued influence these experiments can also be interpreted differently to show that humans are no way near as violent as we have been led to believe.

The limits of kindness

To be clear, there are many reasons to take hope from Bregman’s book; but at the same time although the author delivers a positive life-affirming version of history he still gets an awful lot wrong. This is primarily because he takes human kindness too far. Thus, after winning his readers over with his refreshing and inspiring book about humanity, Bregman fails to learn the correct lessons from this history. Instead, he plumps for a utopian socialist vision of promoting a pacificist world whose boundaries are strictly defined by the limits of capitalism. Emblematic of such confusion is his retelling the role that a far-right warmonger, General Constand Viljoen, and his pacifist (identical twin) brother apparently had in preventing a civil war in South Africa. Bregman credits the secret talks that took place after the collapse of the apartheid regime between Mandela and the fascistic General Viljoen as representing a “pivotal moment” in South African history where the former head of the South African Defence Force “was convinced to lay down his weapons and join the elections with his party.” Yet what this extreme case study really proves is that when a racist leader from the ruling-class makes unsubstantiated threats about launching a civil war on all black people such an individual should not be trusted. Any political leader worth their salt should have refused to compromise with such a fascist leader; but this is exactly what Mandela and the ANC did when they entered into negotiations with the far-right and for the sake of stability compromised on the ability of the new peoples’ government to redistribute wealth to people who needed it most.

Bregman begins the recounting of his peaceable tall story from the day that General Viljoen had addressed a crowd of 15,000 white Afrikaners seething with anger (on 7 May 1993). Speaking as the newly anointed leader new of a white “army” calling itself the Afrikaner Volksfront, Viljoen roared into the microphone: “The Afrikaner people must prepare to defend themselves… A bloody conflict which requires sacrifices is inevitable, but we will gladly sacrifice because our cause is just!” In the subsequent months, his pacifist brother then helped arrange a series of secret talks between General Viljoen and Mandela – with the first taking place on 12 August 1993. Thereon proceeded four months of secret talks at the end of which Bregman says “the former general was convinced to lay down his weapons and join the elections with his party.” But this is not all that happened. As some months after finishing these talks General Viljoen had gone on to lead a military assault to help put down a mass insurrection of the people of Bophuthatswana who were revolting against the deeply unpopular right-wing leader of their bantustan, Lucas Mangope. An uprising that stemmed from the fact that because Mangope was refusing to allow Bophuthatswana to participate in the national elections.[1]

In the aftermath of General Viljoen’s military incursion, which, most significantly, was quashed by the militant actions of thousands of ordinary people, his threat of civil war was rendered laughable. The following month he thus retreated from his warmongering and formed the Freedom Front so he could stand in the elections as their leader. The General was not the enlightened hero as Bregman might have us believe, quite the opposite, it was the ordinary people who served to prevent civil war by standing together in defence of their community. The General had no abiding interest in peace at all, and it seems that the only critical issue that brought the twins together, other than their love of farming, was their fear of communism.[2] This is a fear that, as it turns out, is shared by the author of Humankind who maintains a rather blunt understanding of communism. Thus, he writes “sharing everything equally may be a fine idea, [but] in practice it degenerates into chaos, poverty, or worse – a bloodbath. Look at Russia under Lenin and Stalin.” Bregman taking his cue from anarchist thinkers ignores the most democratic revolution of the twentieth century, the Russian Revolution of October 1917 and neglects to mention that the primary reason why it turned into a bloodbath was because capitalist elites saw fit to drown it in blood with a lengthy civil war. Nevertheless at least he recognises that revolutions in and of themselves are not bad. In fact, he writes positively that one “obvious method” by which people around the world have acted to “tame their leaders” is via organising “a revolution” whereby “The masses try to overthrow a tyrant.” But this is where Bregman’s own liberal pessimism in such democratic actions sets in, as he continues:   

“Most revolutions ultimately fail, though. No sooner is one despot brought down than a new leader stands up and develops an insatiable lust for power. After the French Revolution it was Napoleon. After the Russian Revolution it was Lenin and Stalin. Egypt, too, has reverted to yet another dictator. Sociologists call this the ‘iron law of oligarchy’: even socialists and communists, for all their vaunted ideals of liberty and equality, are far from immune to the corrupting influence of too much power.”

The solution he proposes to address this dilemma is democracy, although he realises that in our current democratic system the “shameless” and the already powerful still have a massive advantage over ordinary people. “Even now, though any citizen can run for public office,” Bregman writes, “it’s tough to win an election without access to an aristocratic network of donors and lobbyists.” This is all true. And this is why the Bolshevik’s who helped lead the Russian Revolution made the pursuit of workers’ democracy a central part of their revolutionary struggle. For instance, a key demand that still has relevance today was that all elected officials be paid a workers’ wage and should be held accountable through the right of recall. This basic commitment to democracy was of course immediately erased under Stalin’s anti-democratic regime. (For a useful introduction to the 1917 Revolution, see the October 1987 issue of Inqaba Ya Basebenzi — the Journal of the Marxist Workers’ Tendency of the African National Congress.)

Revisiting Bregman’s history of the psychology of human nature

As should be obvious by now Humankind represents a mixed bag as far as far as its quality of analysis is concerned. Being hopeful is of course not good enough when writing a book about such important historical issues. What the working-class needs to be able to arm itself for successful political struggle, is accuracy, combined with a genuinely scientific approach to understanding class relations. What we do not need is a pick-and-mix assortment of hopeful sounding anecdotes; after all we are not going to hope our way to a socialist future. Instead, we are going to need to organise ourselves in democratic groups with accountable leaders to rid ourselves of our shameless capitalist oppressors. So, in the next section of this book review I will focus on Bregman’s early chapters that deal with several famous psychological experiments and attempt to situate them within a more realistic Marxist framework in contrast to Humankind’s favoured ideology of kindness.

Let’s start with the Robbers Cave Experiment, a famous study that was undertaken in 1954 by Professor Muzafer Sherif, who is widely considered to be one of the founding fathers of social psychology. By way of an introduction Bregman writes:

“The Robbers Cave Experiment is a story about well-behaved little boys – ‘the cream of the crop,’ as Sherif later described them – who in the space of a few days degenerate into ‘wicked, disturbed, and vicious bunches of youngsters’. Sherif’s camp took place in the same year that William Golding published his Lord of the Flies, but while Golding thought kids are bad by nature, Sherif believed everything hinges on context.”

In summary Sherif demonstrated that even violent conflicts between groups – in this case children – could be overcome if a sensible approach were adopted. He believed that children were not aggressive or greedy by nature but could be encouraged to behave like this under certain circumstances. But most importantly his experiment successfully demonstrated that conflicts between two rival groups could quickly be overcome if the two groups had to work together to solve a common problem that they both had an interest in resolving. Of course, the main element of this study that capitalist commentators seized upon is the way that otherwise nice children can turn into competitive riven monsters even in the idyllic setting of a summer camp in the woods. This deliberate misinterpretation however misses the entire point of the experiment, as the artificially generated conflict was only manufactured to prove how it could be resolved. Either way in writing up the experiment for public consumption Sherif neglected to mention that the conflict was far from organic, and that it had to be actively engineered by the secretive actions of manipulative adult supervisors. Hence this meant that the selective manner in which he wrote up his study could easily be co-opted to misrepresent the darker side of human nature. This is unfortunate to say the least.

In exposing this story Bregman interviews Gina Perry, the author of The Lost Boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave Experiment (Scribe, 2018). It is within this text that we discover some relevant background that was excised from Bregman’s retelling of this story. First, and perhaps most importantly Muzafer Sherif was a one-time leading member of the Communist Party in Turkey who was forced (in 1945) to flee from his fascist government to live in exile in America. This fact goes a long way towards explaining why Sherif sought to understand how human conflicts might be resolved. Perry, in her own book, actually states that “Sherif set out to disprove theories that prejudice and conflict sprang from human nature”. None of this is discussed by Bregman.

Perry also shed light on Sherif’s other experiments that help us to better decipher the Robbers Cave Experiment.Thus, Sherif’s first experiment on group social dynamics took place in 1949 and involved examining children in the context of a summer holiday camp on a farm. “After a few days where the boys mixed and played, he divided the friends into two groups and organised a three-day contest of games.” The last day of these competitions was marked by violence and Sherif was happy to have “proved his theory that friends will become enemies when they are forced to compete”. Yet not long after this moment the experiment had to be called off when the adult staff found that they were unable to undo the competitive violence that they had unleashed. Here it is critical to observe that in the first unpublished draft of the academic report on this experiment Sherif’s class analysis shone through. But in the context of the Cold War, and in the interests of receiving further funding, Sherif was encouraged to rewrite his report on the experiment so that it was expunged of his own radical ambitions.[3] On this transformation Perry writes:

“In his first draft, Sherif concluded that in this study, the boys’ behaviour reflected the dynamics of a competitive society that divided people into the ‘haves and have-nots’, stoked rivalry and resentment, and fostered prejudices and, eventually, violence.

“… In the new draft, a kind of paralysis overtakes his writing. Gone are references to class, how the experiment reflected the dynamics of a capitalist society, or the alienation the system breeds between workers who regard one another as rivals in an economic competition. Any inference that a capitalist system sets up inequality between groups in society by granting unequal access to money, power, or resources, and so breeds social discord, was gone. Sherif’s language in the final draft was sanitised, cleansed — and deadly dull. There was no reference to real-world politics. There was no longer anything revolutionary lurking in those pages.”

Amazingly, an experiment that sought to illustrate the failings of capitalism had now become so vacuous in critical content that even the military became interested in funding his research to help them manage (racial) conflict within their own forces. And later the Rockefeller Foundation also stepped forward with a huge $38,000 grant which enabled Sherif to proceed with his Robbers Cave Experiment. Elite interest in such psychological research now became something of a growth industry which was related to the funding of the behavioural sciences which was now growing at a phenomenal rate with philanthropic foundations like Rockefeller and Ford working closely to promote these new research agendas in close cooperation with the CIA.[4] None of this background was apparently of interest to Bregman, who simply chose to zero in on the “fraud” of Sherif’s work, with a particular focus on an abandoned version of the famous 1954 experiment that was cancelled and never formally written-up. Yet it seems that the reason why this preliminary experiment was not written about by Sherif was simple, if not altogether agreeable. Sherif and his supervisors had succeeded in stoking division and conflict between two groups of children, but the children had quickly worked out they were being manipulated so had joined together to turn against the scientists. As far as Sherif was concerned this represented a failed experiment, which it was as the experimental protocol had been derailed. It is of course understandable why Bregman would latch on this lesser-known part of the experiment as a demonstration that human nature is not bad, which is true, but in focusing on this so-called “fraud” he ends up distracting his readers from the positive and progressive results of the Robbers Cave Experiment.

Lessons in obedience: the cases of Milgram, the illusive bystanders, and Zimbardo

Irrespective of Humankind’s shortcomings, what remains true is that ruling-class institutions were happy to fund and propagate the findings of psychological research that helped to legitimate war and social inequality. Thus, even critically minded researchers like Sherif ended up unwittingly contributing to the CIA’s mind-control research (if only later in his career).[5] So it is hardly surprising that one critic of such sinister research argues that “circumstantial” evidence seems to suggest that Stanley Milgram’s research on obedience and aggression can be seen “as a by-product of the larger CIA mind-control project.”[6] In fact, although the available evidence indicates that Milgram’s research was not funded by the military, it is true that Milgram did put in an initial research proposal for funding to the Office of Naval Research whereupon he made clear the benefits of his work to the military. Milgram wrote in this early proposal: “Given that a person is confronted with a particular set of commands… we may ask which conditions increase his compliance, and which make him less likely to comply.”[7]

Despite the many problems relating to Milgram’s famous obedience experiments, what we do know is this: that first and foremost his work demonstrated that people who volunteered to participate in an experiment — which they believed was being undertaken to advance the science of education — may, with a lot of persuasion, be encouraged to commit violent actions against other humans. This does not really tell us anything significant about human nature. Furthermore, Milgram, in contrast to Sherif, did not make the focus of his research an effort to understand the circumstances under which people might resist coercive pressure. Although it should be noted that some variations of Milgram’s experiment demonstrated that people found it easier to resist the authoritative and bullying scientist leading the experiment when they were not alone, or when the scientist who coerced them was some distance away (communicating via a telephone).

Again, largely relying upon another investigative book written by Gina Perry (Behind the Shock Machine. The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments), Bregman highlights the fact that “only 56 per cent of his subjects believed they were actually inflicting pain on the learner.” This much was revealed in Milgram’s own book, although not emphasised. More importantly Bregman adds that Perry’s research had unearthed something more significant, and this was “A never-published analysis by one of Milgram’s assistants [that] reveals that the majority of people called it quits if they did believe the shocks were real.” Rather than demonstrate that people are born sinners, ready to become violent robots with just a little encouragement, Bregman concludes that Milgram’s research actually determined that…

“… if you push people hard enough, if you poke and prod, bait and manipulate, many of us are indeed capable of doing evil. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. But evil doesn’t live just beneath the surface; it takes immense effort to draw it out. And most importantly, evil has to be disguised as doing good.”

In the early 1960s, now that Milgram had made his global reputation through his obedience experiments, it is fitting that in June 1964 – while employed at the City University of New York – that he would write an article that supported the growing mythology of another famous incident that allegedly demonstrated the darker side of humanity. He did this when he co-authored an article on the murder of Kitty Genovese.[8] The circumstances surrounding this murder played a critical part in Bregman’s book, as this event is used to prove how little compassion ordinary people have for people they don’t know. The conventional telling of the story is used to illustrate the so-called “bystander effect” which showed how 38 isolated individuals living in Kew Gardens (a wealthy suburb of New York) had all witnessed Kitty’s brutal murder in the early hours of March 13, 1964 but had all done nothing to intervene. Yet nothing of sort happened, it was a story that was literally co-invented by the head of the New York police force and by the metropolitan editor of the New York Times, Abe Rosenthal – whose newspaper, two weeks after the incident, ran with the frontpage headline “37 who saw murder didn’t call the police” (later changed to 38).

As Bregman points out, in spite of this murder appearing to be a terrifying story about public apathy it turns out that one witness did quickly alert the police to this incidence, but when this initial call was made the police failed to respond, probably because they “assumed” it “was a marital spat.” Bregman adds: “Bear in mind these were the days when people didn’t pay much attention to a husband beating his wife, the days when spousal rape wasn’t even a criminal offence.” And although The Times was quick to report the story as a cut-and-dry story about a predatory black man (Winston Moseley) killing a white woman, the story ignored the fact that Kitty was a lesbian and that the second key witness was a gay man who was so scared about contacting the police that he had to get a friend to call for him. Bregman correctly explains: “Homosexuality was strictly illegal in those days, and [Karl] Ross was terrified both of the police and of papers like the New York Times, which stigmatized homosexuality as a dangerous disease.”

Now the true story gets really interesting, as five days after Kitty’s murder the quick actions of two bystanders led to the arrest of a robber who subsequently confessed to the murder of Kitty. The media of course ignored the details of the story which contradicted the so-called “bystander effect”. And Bregman goes further and illustrates that we now know that the “bystander effect” is yet another capitalist myth. He does this by drawing upon the important research being undertaken by Danish psychologist Marie Lindegaard, whose work shows that in most cases (using examples from all over the world) when people witness bad behaviour, they intervene to stop it.

But if we dig further into the case surrounding Kitty’s murder it seems that Bregman omitted a very relevant piece of information from his retelling of this story (which can be found in a research article that Bregman cites in his book). This is because in another follow-up article published in the New York Times by Abe Rosenthal we find out that Winston Moseley, the murderer, had also “confessed to killing two other women, for one of whose murders police say they have a confession from another man.”[9] Rosenthal however doesn’t dwell on this critical point, and as history would soon show the police had already forced a false confession from someone else. Making matters worse an innocent man was ultimately found guilty even though Moseley had given evidence in his trial and had “provided a step-by-step account” of how he had slaughtered Kitty. Police corruption thus resulted in an innocent man serving 12 years in prison. And in another disturbing twist to the scandal swirling around Kitty’s murder, two years later her brother “volunteered for the Marines, a decision he attributes to his disgust with public apathy.”[10]

In the 1960s, we should remember, popular opposition to the Vietnam War was now growing amidst the insurrectionary atmosphere generated around the civil rights movement, and the type of deliberate media distortions that surrounded Kitty’s murder were regularly replicated to impugn the motives of ordinary people struggling for a fairer world. The state’s aggressive efforts to undermine working-class movements were undeterred by matters of common decency, and the corporate media were happy to denigrate democratic movements to better promote capitalist stability. Scientists too continued to play an important role in shoring up the power of the ruling-class, and the example of Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment represents just another piece of this authoritarian puzzle.

Zimbardo’s experiment is arguably the most significant study discussed so far, especially when considered in terms of its utility to the powers that be in helping them propagate the lie that “nice people can spontaneously turn evil”. “Zimbardo’s study wasn’t just dubious,” Bregman summarizes, “It was a hoax.” The entire experiment was pre-conceived in such a way as to make it next to impossible that the prison guards would not abuse their wards. Zimbardo literally manufactured an abusive prison environment designed to create tough prison guards who would torture their prisoners. But unfortunately, this is not how this memorable experiment is remembered in popular culture.

The Stanford Prison Experiment’s depressing results allegedly confirmed that ordinary people “can be led to perpetrate atrocities not because they blindly follow orders, but because they conform blindly to what is expected of them as a group member.” Yet, in the first complete retesting of the original prison experiment, which Bregman refers to in Humankind, two less violence-prone psychologists, Stephen Reicher and Alexander Haslam, came to quite different conclusions, and argued that “it is not valid to conclude that people mindlessly and helplessly succumb to brutality.” Instead, they observed that the available evidence “suggest[s] that brutality occurs when people identify strongly with groups that have a brutal ideology.” This is quite different from the arguments that were forcefully made by Zimbardo about the dark truths of conformity and human nature. Yes, people do great wrong, but they do so because they truly believe that such actions are warranted, “because they actively identify with groups whose ideology justifies and condones the oppression and destruction of others.”[11]

Although overlooked by Bregman, Zimbardo has acknowledged that his experiment was “supported by a government grant from the Office of Naval Research to study antisocial behavior” but says that this had little effect on his research goals. And while further research shows that the title for Zimbardo’s grant under which his prison research was subsumed was, “Individual and Group Variables Influencing Emotional Arousal, Violence, and Behavior,” the military was apparently focused on other matters. Hence the US Department for Defence’s title for Zimbardo’s project was “Personnel Technology Factors Influencing Disruptive Behavior Among Military Trainees.”[12] The difference between the two titles is striking to say the least; so, it is worth reprinting what the military thought the primary purpose of Zimbardo’s research was.

“U.S. military forces have recently experienced an apparent upsurge of problems involving negative reactions to authority, insufficient loyalty to the organization, failure to maintain (and even sabotage of) valuable government property, and racial conflict. This research aims at the production of a set of behavioral principles which could reduce the incidence of such undesireable [sic] behavior in the Navy and Marine Corps.”

Turning the tables on kindness

As pointed out earlier, there are serious limits to the analyses presented in Bregman’s book, which party owe to his simplistic rendering of complex historical processes to support his deeply felt views on human kindness. This shortcoming, as we saw with his mistaken interpretation of events in South Africa, creates serious problems that become particularly apparent in his discussion of Zimbardo’s prison research and its impact on the evolution of America’s incarceration state. Hence Bregman credits the 1973 publication of Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment as dealing a death blow to a (new) progressive approach to imprisoning people that had apparently started to flourish in the late 1960s.

In leading-up to his mistaken argument about Zimbardo’s effect on the evolution of the US prison system Humankind also makes another error relating to Bregman’s focus on kindness. Thus, while he correctly presents the 1960s as being a “turbulent” period, in Bregman’s desire to side-line the perfectly understandable everyday violence or ordinary people he only emphasizes the nonviolent parts of the mass movements on the streets (which of course were regularly attacked with great violence by the police). Erased from Bregman’s narrative is any mention of the widespread use of violence for self-defence, or of the huge race riots that were a response to deepening inequality and ongoing class oppression. This mistaken historically narrative encourages Bregman to overstate the progressive nature played by the government which leads him to praise the creation of the President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice (which was initiated in July 1965 and made its final recommendations in 1967). Bregman writes that the “most radical recommendations” made by the criminologists involved in this Commission “concerned the future of US prisons” with serious suggestions put forward arguing that a “model institution” would do away with bars and prison cells and “would resemble as much as possible a normal residential setting”. This is all true, and certainly some limited moves were made to trial different, more humane ways, of punishing criminals. But Bregman is way off track when he goes on to assert that one of the main reasons why these prison trials failed was because of Zimbardo’s hoax prison experiment.[13] Bregman thus observes:

“In hindsight, it’s shocking how fast the tide turned – and what caused it. It started with Philip Zimbardo, who in February 1973 published the first academic article on his Stanford Prison Experiment.”

This is simply not true. Much bigger economic factors drove a stake through the heart of the Crime Commission’s unusual proposals. These had a lot to do with President Johnson’s Democratic Party being an undemocratic capitalist organization that certainly did not want to tackle the root causes of inequality via prison reform, especially if it meant alienating their corporate backers. This factor combined with President’s Johnson’s prioritization of war over welfare indicates that the blame for the undermining of radical prison reforms should not be laid at Zimbardo’s doorstep.[14]

Of course right-wing intellectuals were quick to undermine the Crime Commission’s far-reaching conclusions as soon as they were published in 1967, and at the forefront of such early attacks was the up-and-coming neoconservative academic James Q. Wilson. Wilson being the very same individual who, as Bregman points out, later appropriated another Zimbardo experiment to popularise another regressive form of policing that became known as the so-called broken windows theory – a theory of policing that “works to criminalize communities of color and expand mass incarceration without making people safer.”[15] Either way, Bregman incorrectly gives full credit to the Stanford Prison Experiment for inspiring opposition to prison reform. He then goes on to add that the conservative idea that prisons were unreformable…

“…gained popularity when the infamous Martinson Report appeared one year later. The man behind this report, Robert Martinson, was a sociologist at NYU with a reputation as a brilliant if slightly maniacal personality. He was also a man with a mission. In his younger years, Martinson had been a civil rights activist and landed in jail for thirty-nine days (including three in solitary confinement). This awful experience convinced him that all prisons are barbaric places.”

Although you would not know it from Bregman’s book, Martinson was not just an ordinary civil rights activist who went to prison, but had been a leading member of Max Shachtman’s Trotskyist group. This was a one-time Marxist organization that had been moving in a rightward direction from the late 1950s onwards; with the group soon playing an important role in supporting the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s and in coddling up to all manner of reactionary trade unionists. It thus seems likely that following in Shachtman’s footsteps Martinson had transitioned from being a radical socialist to something wholly different; in Martinson’s case, becoming transformed from an activist into a self-centred academic with a carefree approach to the truth. In fact, the article that Martinson authored (based on the Martinson Report) that popularised the conservative arguments regarding prison reform was actually printed in the same neoconservative magazine that had published Wilson’s critique of the Crime Commission (that magazine being The Public Interest). This however is not how Bregman tells the story. Instead, he writes:

“Martinson… published a short summary of their findings in a popular magazine. Title: ‘What Works?’ Conclusion: nothing works. ‘With few and isolated exceptions,’ Martinson wrote, ‘the rehabilitative efforts that have been reported so far have had no appreciable effect on recidivism.’ The progressive social scientist hoped – much like Philip Zimbardo – that everyone would realise prisons were pointless places and should all be shut down.”

But Martinson was far from progressive by this point in his career. Need I say it, but Marxists do not usually publish arguments devoid of socialist content in “popular” neoconservative publications. Hence the corporate media now made sure Martinson became a national celebrity allowing him to promote his distorted conclusions despite the fact that the major academic study upon which he drew his conclusions had actually provided compelling evidence that prison rehabilitation does work, but less so when seriously underfunded. Nevertheless, undeterred by such matters in August 1975 Martinson secured a slot on CBS’s influential current affairs program 60 Minutes where he repeated his lie that treatment programs “have no fundamental effect” on offenders.[16] This interview was run the month after the law-and-order guru of the neoconservative movement, James Q. Wilson, had published his own book Thinking About Crime, which had called for an end to rehabilitation and promoted a get-tough approach to crime. Wilson believed this was the only way for the justice system to reconcile itself to the dark truths about human nature; serviceable findings that were of course lapped-up by the corporate media. The New York Times ran a slavering review that called Wilson’s book “one of the most insightful books on the topics of crime and punishment” adding: “Here is wisdom, clarity of language, thoughtful alternatives for public policy and broad erudition.”

In conclusion: read a paper, turn your cheek?

Humankind serves yet another reminder that the ruling-class will stop at nothing to maintain the hoax that human nature is a match made in heaven with capitalist greed. And it as Bregman acknowledges, the news as presented in the corporate media has always played a critical role in sustaining this ideological offensive against the better side of human nature. Bregman goes so far to say that following the news is “a mental health hazard.” Here the main researcher he uses to emphasise this important point is the late George Gerbner (1919–2005) who from the 1950s onwards undertook extensive studies which showed the detrimental impact that repetitive negative and violent media stories can have on those who consume it. Gerbner, as Bregman notes “also coined a term to describe the phenomenon he found: mean world syndrome, whose clinical symptoms are cynicism, misanthropy and pessimism.” But the shallowness of Bregman’s research reveals itself yet again in his reference to Gerbner’s work which he credits as being the “first” to “open up this field of research, back in the 1990s,” when in reality Gerbner opened-up this field of research thirty years earlier in the 1960s.

In fact, around the time that the US government’s Crime Commission released their final report, they launched their National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, onto which Gerbner was recruited to undertake research on television violence.[17] Released in December 1969 the latter Commission incorporated Gerbner’s media work and concluded that:

Each year advertisers spend $2.5 billion in the belief that television can influence human behaviour. The television industry enthusiastically agrees with them, but nonetheless contends that its programs of violence do not have any such influence. The preponderance of the available research evidence strongly suggests, however, that violence in television programs can and does have adverse effects upon audiences – particularly child audiences.” (p.195)

The Commission report summarised that…

“…television portrays a world in which ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ alike use violence to solve problems and achieve goals. Violence is rarely presented as illegal or socially unacceptable. Indeed, as often as not, it is portrayed as a legitimate means for attaining desired ends. Moreover, the painful consequences of violence are underplayed and de-emphasized by the ‘sanitized’ way in which much of it is presented.” (pp.194-5)

Of particular interest to Bregman’s story, one television network even responded to the impending release of the full report by starting to fund its own research initiative that sought to swiftly undermine the Commission’s findings. Stanley Milgram thus stepped forward in early 1969 to assist the purveyors of televisual violence, and he obtained a massive $260,000 grant from CBS which he used to demonstrate (with a highly questionable study) that the media does not play a significant role in promoting violence.[18] This was exactly the type of system-supporting research that Gerbner had challenged so successfully throughout his career. It is also perhaps worth emphasizing that throughout this period, CBS, like many other major newspapers (including the New York Times), maintained a cosy relationship with the CIA. In fact, as Carl Bernstein later reported in 1977, “CBS was unquestionably the CIAs most valuable broadcasting asset.”[19] These were the same media outlets that, at the same time as giving support the violent and anti-democratic actions of the CIA, relentlessly demonised the democratic movements of the global working-class.

Bearing all this in mind one can sympathise with Bregman’s advice to his readers to “avoid the news,” especially “television news” and “push notifications” on social media. He however counsels his readers to say that they should still take time to “read a more nuanced Sunday paper and in-depth feature writing, whether online or off.” This is a strange solution to countering media lies, and in the American context amounts to recommending that people read the New York Times! Bregman in his further suggestions goes on to add that people should “Disengage from your screen and meet real people in the flesh.” But again, this is by no means a solution to the systemic problems outlined in Humankind, and neither are his other suggested “ten rules to live by”. For example, his advice that “When in doubt, assume the best” or to just “Think in win-win scenarios” or to refrain from punching Nazis are insufficient if we are serious about moving beyond capitalism. Granted his advice is aimed at overcoming society-wide misperceptions about human nature, but the tried and tested way of overcoming such ideological hurdles is not by changing the individual actions that we take but by engaging in collective action. This is how revolutions in social relations are made. Socialist change comes through hard and determined organising not, as Bregman argues, by “turning the other cheek”. This is a counsel for real despair. Positive change will not just magically arrive when “we revise our view of human nature,” but when we overthrow our capitalist oppressors to inaugurate a new socialist world.


[1] “The Mangope regime commanded considerable resources. Of all the homelands, it was the most economically viable, and the Bophuthatswana Defence Force, 4000 strong and com-manded by ex-SADF officers, was well equipped. But the regime was deeply unpopular and a sequence of events including a civil service strike, mass protests and looting, the defection of sections of the security forces, an attempted intervention by the AWB in support of Mangope and the intercession of the SADF resulted in the bantustan being brought under central government control shortly before the elections.” Gavin Cawthra, Securing South Africa’s Democracy: Defence, Development and Security in Transition (Palgrave Macmillan, 1997), p.79. For a detailed overview of the “Battle for Bop,” see Allister Sparks, Tomorrow Is Another Country: The Inside Story of South Africa’s Road to Change (University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[2] As one reporter noted in October 1993: “They also share a concern that the ideology of communism, though outmoded and disgraced in much of the world, will gain a foothold here.” John Battersby, “Abraham Viljoen: Longtime campaigner for black-white solidarity in South Africa,” Christian Science Monitor, October 28, 1993. Although the New York Times’ article “Apartheid goes ‘Bop’” (March 16, 1994) downplayed the role of ordinary people in the insurrection, it’s still provides useful context to understanding the democratic significance of the “clash”. Their report concluded that “the most striking result was the humiliation of the white separatists, who fell out among themselves as the less extreme faction, headed by retired Gen. Constandt Viljoen, decided to join the election campaign.” One wonders what would have happened in the “Battle of Bop” if the black population had followed Bregman’s advice not to use violence to defend themselves form the armed fascists. As he puts it “punching Nazis only reinforces extremists. It validates them in their worldview and makes it that much easier to attract new recruits.”

[3] Sherif had first travelled to America to study at Harvard University in 1929 where he had befriended the likes of Hadley Cantril. It was only later on his second visit to America in 1934 – this time based at Columbia University — that while living in Harlem in had become converted to the ideas of communism. He returned to Turkey in 1937 but was forced to flee from Turkey’s fascist regime in late 1945 whereupon he returned to America. Upon his return Sherif had co-authored a psychology book with Cantril – in which he had not shied away from promoting his Marxist analyses. But by the 1950s the political situation in America had become extremely hostile to such radical ideas and careerists like Cantril chose to renounce their past radicalism to parlay his careers as a fervent Cold Warrior. As Gina Perry explains, in 1952 “Cantril told the FBI he believed that Sherif ‘would have no hesitation in providing all the information he might possess to the Russians’.” This posed severe problems for Sherif (who was an illegal alien) who was extreme risk of being deported back to Turkey because of his Marxist beliefs. In 1951 while based at the University of Oklahoma Sherif had already had to ward-off the anti-communist witch-hunt and take an oath of allegiance that he was not a communist, however, the FBI continued to investigate him until at least 1953. This background is provided in Perry’s book The Lost Boys; however, further useful information about Sherif’s politics can be found in Sertan Batur’s article “The unknown Muzafer Sherif,” The Psychologist, 27(11), November 2014. 

[4] At first much psychological research was funded directly by the US Department of Defence, and it was only by 1961 that total funding provided by the US Department for Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) to “psychological sciences surpassed total DOD funding. HEW spent $20.4 million during that year, fully half of the federal government’s total for such research. The DOD, in comparison, spent only $15.7 million.” Ellen Herman, The Romance of American Psychology: Political Culture in the Age of Experts (University of California Press, 1995), p.347.

[5] Gina Perry writes: “In 1977, the CIA released thousands of documents, after a freedom of information lawsuit, about its funding of research into mind control and interrogation techniques that could be used against enemies. … Muzafer had unwittingly accepted funding from the CIA for small-group research he conducted [in the mid-1960s]. Sherif had conducted a covert observational study on groups of adolescent gangs. It was part of a program of top-secret experiments called MKUltra. But while Sherif was studying urban gang members, the CIA applied the same research to techniques for renegade members of the KGB: ‘Now, getting a juvenile delinquent defector was motivationally not all that much different from getting a Soviet one.’” (The Lost Boys)

[6] Alfred McCoy, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror (St. Martins Press, 2007), p.49; also see McCoy, “Science in Dachau’s shadow: Hebb, Beecher, and the development of CIA psychological torture and modern medical ethics,” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 43(4), Fall 2007.

[7] Thomas Blass, The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram (Basic Books, 2009), p.66. “The replies Milgram received from all three agencies [including the military] indicated that each of them was receptive to considering the kind of research he had in mind. But the prospects at the National Science Foundation seemed most promising. So on January 27, 1961, he sent the NSF a formal application, ‘Dynamics of Obedience: Experiments in Social Psychology,’ requesting $30,348 for a two-year period from June 1, 1961, to May 31, 1963.” (Blass, p.69) For a useful anarchist critique of Milgram, see Mat Little, The Disobedient Society (New Compass Press, 2019).

[8] With no irony Milgram explained in his article in The Nation (published on June 15, 1964) how the murder was “rapidly being assimilated to the uses and ideologies of the day” without realising he had been hoodwinked by the lies told by the police and the corporate media. The co-author of this piece, Paul Hollander, remained one of Milgram’s closest friends throughout the rest of his life. Hollander gaining much notoriety for his right-wing views and emergence as a leading neoconservative who went on to specialise in the demonisation of Marxists. (see “Paralyzed witnesses: the murder they heard,” The Nation.)

[9] Abe Rosenthal, “Study of the sickness called apathy,” New York Times, May 3, 1964. Bregman does cite this article but evidently overlooked its contents which is unfortunate as he also cites an important academic study which detailed how the police had set-up an innocent man, see Saul Kassin, “The killing of Kitty Genovese: what else does this case tell us?,” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12(3), 2017; for a useful summary of this article see “A new look at the killing of Kitty Genovese: the science of false confessions,” Association for Psychological Science, June 30, 2017.

[10] Jim Rasenberger, “Kitty, 40 years later,” New York Times, February 8, 2004.

[11] Stephen Reicher and Alexander Haslam, “Questioning the banality of evil,” Psychologist, 21 (1), 2008, p.17, p.18, p.19.

[12] Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil (Rider Books, 2007), p.30; Stanton Glantz et al., Department of Defense Sponsored Research at Stanford — Volume 1, Two Perceptions: The Investigator’s and the Sponsor’s (SWOPSI, 1971), p.285. For a detailed examination of how Zimbardo’s research was used to both misrepresent fundamental issues of human nature and help shield the U.S. administration from accusations that they deliberately promote torture, see my earlier article “Challenging the Stanford Prison Experiment: military connections (Part III of III),” Swans Commentary, August 1, 2011.

[13] In making this argument Bregman counterposes the American prison system with the more liberal “dynamic security” model of prisons that are utilised in Norway. He cites the following New York Times article “The radical humaneness of Norway’s Halden prison” (March 26, 2015) which also happens to make the same mistaken argument that Bregman uses to demonstrate why the Crime Commission’s progressive findings were not realised. The Times article however does not mention Zimbardo at all and merely focuses on regressive role played by Robert Martinson.

[14] For an incisive analysis that debunks many liberal arguments concerning trends in American incarceration, see John Clegg and Adaner Usmani, “The economic origins of mass incarceration,” Catalyst, 3(3), Fall 2019.

[15] Here it is worth noting that Wilson had been a founding board member of the Ford Foundation’s “Police Foundation” — a huge project that was initiated in 1970 to supposedly enact some of the recommendations of the Crime Commission’s final report. It was from research undertaken through the Police Foundation that Wilson arrived at his broken windows theory. Sam Collings-Wells, “From Black Power to broken windows: liberal philanthropy and the carceral state,” Journal of Urban History, September 2020. For an excellent discussion of the evolution of Wilson’s conservative views on policing, see Bench Ansfield, “The broken windows of the Bronx: putting the theory in its place,” American Quarterly, 72(1), 2020.

[16] Martinson’s background and his influence on prison reform is discussed in Timothy Crimmins’ article “Incarceration as incapacitation: an intellectual history,” American Affairs, 2(3), Fall 2018. Although Crimmins acknowledges that Martinson’s 1974 article was published in a neoconservative magazine he still inaccurately presents him as a Leftist. That said, Crimmins does point out that other genuine writers on the liberal left did also oppose rehabilitation but for very different reasons, providing the example of the Jessica Mitford’s important book Kind and Usual Punishment: The Prison Business (Knopf, 1973). Mitford however was opposed to both the brutality of prisons and the idea of rehabilitation. For a feminist critique of the concept of capitalist rehabilitation, see Pat Carlen’s speech “Against rehabilitation: for reparative justice,” Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, November 6, 2012. Also of interest is Rick Sarre’s article “Beyond ‘what works?’: a 25-year Jubilee retrospective of Robert Martinson’s famous article,” The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 34(1), 2001.

[17] To Establish Justice, to Insure Domestic Tranquillity: Final Report of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, December 10, 1969. Also see Robert K. Baker and Sandra J. Ball, Mass Media and Violence: A Staff Report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, November 1969.

[18] Blass, The Man Who Shocked the World, p.192-3. Blass notes how Joseph Klapper oversaw CBS’s working relationship with Milgram. For a useful discussion of how the ruling-class has promoted the misnomer that the corporate media has “limited effects” on society — as popularised by the work of CBS’ director of research Joseph Klapper and his influential 1960 book was The Effects of Mass Communication — see Robert Babe, Cultural Studies and Political Economy: Toward a New Integration (Lexington Books, 2009), p.122. Babe also notes how “Gerbner was particularly successful in challenging the law of minimal effects”. (p.123)

[19] Carl Bernstein, “The CIA and the media,” Rolling Stone magazine, October 20, 1977. When the CIA’s role in secretly funding foundations and organisations was first exposed by the New Left activists working for Ramparts magazine (in March 1967), the mainstream media were forced to quickly respond and CBS famously produced a hour long documentary on March 13, 1967 titled “In the Pay of the CIA: An American Dilemma.” Of course, no mention was made of the close collaboration between CBS head William S. Paley, his Paley Foundation, and the CIA (as outlined by Bernstein); instead, the documentary focuses on ostensibly progressive groups linked to the CIA, like right-leaning trade unions (which relates to Norman Thomas’ Institute of International Labor Research) and liberal student groups.

Vaccines: Truth, Lies and Controversy: A Book Review

There will be no going back to the old normal. The Covid-19 pandemic has changed everything. It has inspired fear and bravery, inflicted needless death on the world, and revealed the utter bankruptcy of most world leaders. But there is one thing that we must be clear on, which is that the high death toll that this crisis enacted upon the vulnerable should be blamed squarely upon the exploitative ideology and practices of capitalism – a pathological system that prioritizes profit-making over human health. Nevertheless, individual politicians must be held accountable too, and no doubt they will continue to deflect attention from their many mistakes by leaning on the authority of science. They will plead that their political choices were guided by experienced scientists and that the course of action they followed flowed objectively from the threat posed by a deadly virus: but such trite excuses will not stand up to scrutiny.

Science is not divorced from politics, and so the scientific knowledge that is currently being used to inform political choices cannot be considered in isolation from the profit-making nexus which forcibly contains scientific developments: a cage that must be overturned if the promotion of health for all is ever to become a reality. What is required is a science unencumbered by capitalist chains, a science that can serve the democratic needs of the vast majority of humanity — the global working-class. As one radical physician passionately asserted in the mid-nineteenth century: “It certainly does not detract from the dignity of science to come down off its pedestal and mingle with the people and from the people science gains new strength.” What we need is science for people not profit.

Yet in spite of all the political obstacles placed before them, scientists like other workers, do their best to serve the public good; and as in all other spheres of life, there have always been a handful among their ranks who are willing to speak truth to power. One such individual is the Danish physician and Cochrane Collaborative cofounder, Peter Gøtzsche — a researcher whose academic research is committed to promoting the type of evidence-based science that prioritizes the needs of people before corporations.

Like many critical researchers Gøtzsche goes about this work in a common-sensical way, undertaking critical reviews of existing clinical research to determine which medical interventions are backed by reliable evidence, or conversely, to reveal which treatments are pointless or sometimes even dangerous. These meta-studies, known as Cochrane reviews, are widely considered to provide a gold-standard for promoting good scientific practice. But at the same time, these studies often create much controversy, especially when they highlight ineffective and often expensive cure-alls that corporate elites have foisted upon the world – a good example being Tamiflu. Engaging in conflicts with the rich and powerful is not something that Gøtzsche shies from, something you might guess from the title of his 2013 book, Deadly Medicines and Organised Crime: How Big Pharma Has Corrupted Healthcare – an important book in its own right.[1]

Gøtzsche however has recently published his latest and very timely book, Vaccines: Truth, Lies and Controversy – an accessible text that represents another vital contribution to the reclamation of science from the powers that be. And with big pharma visibly salivating over the possibility of vaccinating billions of people against Covid-19, an examination of the politics of vaccines could not be more relevant. This is necessary because all too often the truth about the validity of many such medical interventions remain buried from sight. An issue which leads many people to correctly feel, as Gøtzsche explains, that “we cannot always trust official recommendations about vaccines, or the way authorities interpret the evidence.” It is however this issue of trust, or rather a lack of it, that acts as a major block on the challenge of developing effective medical responses to illnesses that continue to kill hundreds of thousands of people every year. And it is the inability of capitalist governments to engender the trust of those who elect them that leads to exactly the type of “vaccine hesitancy” that always has the potential to endanger us all.


A question of trust?

Politicians and their big pharma friends have a lot to answer for, but the erosion of public trust in many medical treatments is further aggravated by the “pervasive misinformation” spread so assiduously by the corporate media. This is particularly true in the case of vaccines. That being said, in spite of a longstanding campaign having been waged against vaccinations by right-wing conspiracy theorists – often with the aid of the mainstream media – those people in society who are vaccine deniers (i.e., oppose all vaccines) still make-up just a small proportion of people. But this does not mean that vaccines should be exempt from criticism.

Gøtzsche’s book therefore raises many serious concerns about the validity of a handful of widely used vaccines. Nevertheless, he is absolutely clear that science is not on the side of the fundamentalists who reject all vaccines, as in any given country “It is vastly better to get all the recommended vaccines than to refuse all of them.” Still Gøtzsche correctly asserts that “we can do much better than to simply accept everything that is recommended,” which unfortunately is often the default position of the fundamentalists on the other side of the vaccine debate, people Gøtzsche refers to as “vaccine advocates.” Although he adds that this descriptor may be “too kind for those of them who are similarly unreasonable as the vaccine deniers when they say we should accept all vaccines without asking questions.” So, contrary to holding either fundamentalist positions, Gøtzsche emphasizes the role of dissent and public debate in informing public health measures. But, as he argues, for such dissent to be effective it should be informed by the best available evidence on a case-by-case basis, and this is exactly the position from which Gøtzsche’s book approaches the question of vaccines.

The fact that huge and powerful private corporations exert so much power over governmental decisions goes a long towards explaining “why people can become sceptical towards vaccines in general, or at least ask questions about them,” Gøtzsche says. Afterall the primary goal of all corporations is to increase their profit margins, an incentive which all too often encourages big pharma to engage in criminal activities like “cheating with the clinical trials” and overstating the positive effects of their new drugs or vaccines. Making matters worse: “It is also clear that we cannot trust our drug regulators, which allow far too many dangerous drugs on to the market and are very slow to take them off again when the evidence for their lethal effects accumulates.” You could say that in many ways it is a miracle that public trust in vaccines remains as high as it does. But it is not something that we should take for granted.

Influenza vaccines on trial

Although this book review is not the place to scrutinize the evidence base for different vaccines – for this you will have to read Gøtzsche’s book — it is useful, especially in the context of the ongoing pandemic, to reflect upon the questionable utility of flu vaccines. This is because, despite their widespread use, Gøtzsche demonstrates that “It has never been shown in reliable research that flu shots reduce deaths.” This is certainly the considered scientific opinion of fellow Cochrane Collaborative contributor Tom Jefferson, a leading flu epidemiologist whose work Gøtzsche cites within his book.[2] But instead of a reasoned scientific discussion being initiated about this potential oversight, with the appropriate independent trials and research being undertaken to get to the root of the matter, the opposite has been the case. This has led to the destructive situation where the public “are bombarded with highly misleading information, not only about the effect, but also about the number of influenza deaths,” whose only purpose, in Gøtzsche’s opinion, appears to be “to scare people into getting vaccinated.” Rather than governments collating accurate records of influenza deaths it appears that current vaccine policy is being driven forward by wildly inaccurate estimates. If true, this is a serious problem.

To support the case that influenza mortality rates are massively overstated Gøtzsche referred specifically to an academic study which successfully counted actual flu deaths over seven flu seasons in three Canadian hospitals. The results of this unique study (which ideally should be replicated elsewhere) determined that influenza fatality rates were actually eight times lower than the numbers predicted by government estimates. The magnitude of error in the Canadian government’s overly gloomy predictions were subsequently confirmed when the “so-called flu pandemic hit in 2009”: this is because for “the first time, there was widespread lab testing, a national reporting system, and all eyes were on potential flu-related deaths.” Only 438 flu deaths were counted in 2009, in comparison to the government’s estimate of 8,000, again revealing the huge gap between reality and the dubious estimates that guide global flu vaccination policies.[3]

This widespread problem of governments over-estimating flu deaths explains why scientists like Gøtzsche and Jefferson continue to advocate for better quality research to be undertaken in this field. This is because you can’t determine how effective a flu vaccine is until you can quantify how many people it is actually helping. But there is more besides dodgy estimates that should concern us with flu vaccines, and Gøtzsche argues that inadequate research has been conducted into the safety and efficacy of such flu jabs. He points out that even reports provided on the web site of the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) – reports which are intended to encourage annual flu vaccinations — acknowledge some of these problems. These concerns even include evidence that some people have an increased chance of getting the flu if they regularly obtain flu vaccinations! A serious problem which leads the CDC says “merit[s] further investigation”. Nevertheless they still brush this issue aside and conclude that “based on the substantial burden of flu in the United States, and on the fact that most studies point to vaccination benefits, CDC recommends that yearly flu vaccination [for all age groups] remains the first and most important step in protecting against flu and its complications.” (“Vaccine effectiveness: how well do the flu vaccines work?”)

Here considering the large amount of time and money that the US government continues to spend on flu vaccinations maintaining some medical context on this intervention is crucial, as optimistic government estimates suggest that the flu vaccine averted 3,500 deaths in 2018-19. Contrast this probably highly inflated number with the US governments continuing unwillingness to enact and enforce meaningful air pollution regulations upon corporate polluters, a refusal to act that leads to an estimated 200,000 unnecessary deaths each year. Thus, at the same time as proving quite willing to spend millions of dollars on flu vaccines the US government promotes regressive policies that actively encourage polluting activities. Thereby incentivizing the creation of the type of pollution that predominantly kills the poorest people in society while exacting a disproportionately higher death toll upon black citizens.

Finally, it is important to recognize that not all health advisory bodies make the same all-encompassing recommendations regarding flu vaccines as does the CDC. Gøtzsche points out that the World Health Organization (WHO) – an organization largely funded by the US government, and whose operations are largely dictated to by the needs of big business – has a “far more modest” approach to flu vaccines. Current WHO advice is that flu vaccines should be strictly targeted at the most vulnerable, that is, the very young and the very old. This leads Gøtzsche to suggest that the US government’s recommendation that all age groups get the annual flu vaccination most probably “has a lot to do with the extreme degree of unrestrained capitalism that influences US healthcare.” This is likely true, but such kow-towing to the whims of vaccine producing corporations is not unique to the US. Indeed, conservative and social democratic politicians across the world (including those in Gøtzsche’s homeland of Denmark) continue to enact medical interventions that cater to the needs of big pharma while enacting broader social policies, like austerity, that simultaneously undermine the health of the majority of their citizens.

Force and fascism

In the early pages of his book Gøtzsche cites the British Conservative Party’s Health Minister, Matt Hancock, as providing an informative example of how elites happily demonize vaccine critics in order to force their alleged ‘cures’ upon the public. He quotes Hancock (from May 2019) as saying:

“Those people who campaign against vaccination are campaigning against science. The science is settled” … “Those who have promoted the anti-vaccination myth are morally reprehensible, deeply irresponsible and have blood on their hands.”

Later that year Hancock spoke of the strong possibility of introducing “compulsory vaccinations” for children – an authoritarian move which scientifically-minded health experts advise would be counterproductive, as coercion tends to erode trust and might even intensify resistance to all vaccines. It is of course true that for many vaccines, like the famous MMR vaccination, governments should do whatever they can to encourage mass compliance to successfully protect everyone from what are truly terrible diseases. But capitalist politicians who represent different class interests from their constituents have rarely felt obliged to take decisions that are based upon winning the trust of the working-class. Hence the default position of such politicians is to impose top-down ‘solutions.’

Accusing vaccine critics of having “blood on their hands” only leads to the stifling of the very democratic processes that enable us to hold our decision-makers to account.[4] Yet the UK Conservative government cares little for democratic norms, and after spending the last decade starving our hospitals of both finances and staff – last December they announced they were considering making flu shots mandatory for all front-line health workers. This threat represented another massive infringement upon workplace rights – nothing new for the Tories. And as Gøtzsche correctly points out, such acts of compulsion have already been successfully opposed by the British trade union movement in the past and would no doubt be resisted again. Such successes however are by no means guaranteed and rely upon an organized workforce being willing to stand united against their bosses. Hence Gøtzsche cites another case that occurred in America in 2017, when “a senior faculty member at New York University School of Medicine, who did not even do clinical work, had her faculty appointment terminated because she did not get an influenza vaccination.” “It is no wonder,” Gøtzsche comments, “that some people speak about health fascism when the doing-gooders seem to have no limits to their violations of basic human rights.”[5]

Unfortunately, the political groups that most regularly harness accusations of so-called “health fascism” are precisely those organizations that maintain the closest political ties to fascist ideologies. It is therefore no coincidence that it is the same forces on the far-right who have been the most persistent critics of socialized healthcare and government vaccination schedules (but especially mandatory ones), both of which they see as another example of the state trying to meddle with their individual liberty. A good example of how this works in practice recently occurred in Italy when in mid-2017 the government, led by the Democratic Party, decided it was necessary to make it mandatory for all children to have ten vaccinations. In response the far-right used their vocal opposition to such ill-advised compulsion to falsely present themselves as the true defenders of democratic values. Building upon the already deep public distrust of the criminally pro-capitalist political parties, Italy’s two far-right parties were thereby able to weaponize the issue of vaccinations, exemplifying the type of populist politics which helped them come to assume state power the following year.[6]

In the US context it is the far-right who have similarly capitalized on the existence of widespread distrust of corrupt capitalist politicians who the far-right accuse of acting like Nazis doctors testing dangerous drugs (in their minds vaccines) upon the masses. And it is to this libertarian “health freedom” movement — which is deeply imbued with an irrational opposition to vaccines — that Donald Trump, himself a vaccine-sceptic, partly owes his electoral success. Although here we should acknowledge that the greatest reason for Trump’s electoral success is the dire politics of the Democrats.

By recognizing that not all vaccines are equal, Gøtzsche’s book is all the more convincing in dethroning the irrational arguments of the anti-vaccination movement. And importantly, Gøtzsche does not blame ordinary people for turning to such non-solutions in attempting to understand the world around them. Gøtzsche himself having provided reams of evidence in both his latest book and within his earlier ones that lay-out why so many people distrust the capitalist healthcare establishment. Evidence of systematic corruption and wrongdoing which taken in its entirety clearly show that the future advance of medicine and public healthcare cannot be entrusted by those fixating upon profits. Nevertheless, ever the objective scientist, Gøtzsche holds back from drawing any overtly political conclusions. And so, flowing from his unwillingness to call for the end of capitalism, Gøtzsche finds himself hemmed in and forced into making the following contradictory conclusion:

“I have argued why I am against mandatory vaccinations. But I must admit that the threat to other people, not least people’s own children who cannot make decisions about vaccines for themselves, might become so large that I would favour mandatory vaccinations of some kind. Hopefully without using force, which I find repugnant, but in other ways.”

This conclusion is reached in spite of the fact that Gøtzsche readily acknowledges that the use of compulsion is self-defeating and that such mandates give wind to cries of “health fascism.” This is a problem that Gøtzsche needs to address. As, without posing a true socialist alternative to capitalism — that is forcefully pushing proposing the need for creating a socialist society that is built around generating the trust of ordinary people — it is likely that the far-right will be the ones who will benefit politically from the introduction of state compulsion in health matters. This point is far from academic, and at one point Gøtzsche recounts how one of the few Danish politicians to side with his (arguably correct) criticisms of the problems of the HPV vaccine was “Liselott Blixt, chair of the Health Committee in Parliament”. He doesn’t mention her political background, but this is relevant because despite Blixt’s welcome reversal on the question of the scientific validity of the HPV vaccine she is certainly no progressive: far from it she is a member of the far-right Danish People’s Party. Nevertheless, at this point in time, despite the sizable vote that the popularist far-right obtain in Denmark, public trust in vaccines appears to remain reasonably high with polls showing that only 4% of the population agree with the statement that “vaccines are not effective”.[7] So while Gøtzsche can say that he has “never heard about any anti-vaxxer movement” in Denmark, you couldn’t rule out that one might be in the process of developing.

Responding to pandemics

A discussion that sheds light upon the troubling vaccine controversies that ebb and flow across the world has never been more necessary. A pandemic is causing worldwide chaos, and big pharma have been tasked with developing a global vaccine. Thus, the final chapter of Gøtzsche’s book (added as an update in mid-May) endeavours to take up some of the problems associated with responses to the pandemic.

In keeping with the controversies raised in the rest of his book, one of the most significant criticisms that Gøtzsche levels at most governments around the world is their failure to respond to the coronavirus crisis using scientific best practice. For example, despite having decades to prepare for a looming pandemic, governments around the world refused to invest in making even the most basic preparations, like for instance the stockpiling of PPE. To this day governments are still also failing to undertake the type of scientific research that would enable them to get a proper handle on the virus. “What I missed the most in the early months of the pandemic,” writes Gøtzsche, “were that the authorities did not heed sufficiently the knowledge we already had, and that researchers did not embark on experiments that could tell us what works, what doesn’t and what is harmful.” He also remains sceptical that the evidence collected on the science of the new coronavirus should have led authorities to the decision to implement “draconian” lockdowns.

The issue of lockdown or not continues to remain a hot political topic to this day, and Gøtzsche was one of the first scientists to publicly challenge the introduction of lockdowns. He first made his concerns publicly known on March 8 in a “rapid response” that was published in the British Medical Journal. In this short comment piece he noted that globally only about 4,000 had died from the coronavirus which led him to argue that governments were acting like “victims of mass panic” rather than promoters of evidence-based healthcare. He later added to these criticisms in a brief blog post (“Corona: an epidemic of mass panic,” March 21) wherein he restated  the same ideas while explaining that the best analyses that he had seen so far was John Ioannidis’ article from March 17, which was titled “A fiasco in the making? As the coronavirus pandemic takes hold, we are making decisions without reliable data.”[8] For those who don’t known, Ioannidis is a well-respected statistician and medical epidemiologist based at Stanford University, who had recently joined Gøtzsche as an advisor to his newly launched Institute for Scientific Freedom.

Like Gøtzsche, Ioannidis was concerned that government actions were not being adequately informed by scientific evidence. Ioannidis explained that governments were missing the “most valuable piece of information” that could inform decision-making which “would be to know the current prevalence of the infection in a random sample of a population and to repeat this exercise at regular time intervals to estimate the incidence of new infections.” A good point which few governments bothered reflecting upon. Subsequently Gøtzsche would publish a peer-reviewed article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine that was titled “The coronavirus pandemic: can we handle such epidemics better?” It was this article, which has been available for all to read online since May 14, that served as the closing chapter of Gøtzsche’s book. Again, Gøtzsche raises many important points questioning the logic of draconian lockdowns. But perhaps his most relevant conclusion is that when the pandemic starts spreading again in a second wave:

“Scientists will need to be involved right from the start so that we may gather important evidence, e.g. by repeated and widespread testing of random samples of the population and by performing randomised trials. Not only have few of the current measures been evidence-based, we have also not had enlightened public discussions. The politicians have ensured that it will be very difficult to analyse afterwards if the measures did more good than harm. This is not how healthcare should be.”

As part of this healthy debate, scientists and politicians will need to respond in a less hysterical fashion when dissenting voices like those of Gøtzsche and Ioannidis are aired in public. Just because scientists raise concerns about the evidence-base for decisions, whether these relate to vaccine safety or pandemic responses, does not mean they should be blamed for any political resistance that develops in response to the government actions they criticize. Rather a more democratic response would involve engaging with critics and where possible offering up the necessary evidence to publicly debunk their analyses. Only such actions can strengthen public trust in any government plans to limit the pandemics eventual death toll. Yet we are where we are, and we cannot expect such democratic responses to emerge from the capitalist groupthink displayed by the vast majority of the world’s politicians, and nor will such actions be supported by the corporate-controlled mainstream media.

Political threats

What makes the current pandemic situation so tragic is that when scientists have the strength to speak truth to power, it has been far-right opportunists who have been able to co-opt such criticisms to bolster their own anti-government conspiracies.[9] Like a virus this cynical political manoeuvring has proved highly adaptive. So, when the Social Democrats in Sweden became one of the few countries that refused to implement a harsh lockdown — overseeing a herd immunity strategy – the government found that even then they were not immune from vigorous attacks from the far-right.[10] Likewise, the unfolding events in the United States highlight the flexible nature of populist opportunism. So even though it was President Trump who initiated America’s lockdown he is still tried to strike a pose as one of its leading opponents. Trump has thus ranted against the government bureaucrats, liberal scientists and the “fake news” outlets who, in his mind, collectively conspired together to force him to implement the lockdown. In this way we can see how a variety of anti-democratic actors (including the President) have capitalized on the highly limited debate around the science in favour of the lockdown. Such actors can then oppose lockdowns (with some success) by suggesting that the entire pandemic is nothing more than a nefarious fiction hatched in the minds of megalomaniacal ‘liberal’ globalists like Bill Gates. Gøtzsche warns of this issue in his book when he writes: “There is no doubt that stifling scientific inquiry is far more dangerous than publishing freely…” This is because by artificially limiting any public debate the government must promote an approach which relies upon “cherry-picking data, which is exactly what the vaccine deniers do.” And this is exactly what the pandemic deniers are doing right now.

Unfortunately, the assimilation of dissenting scientific research by the far-right is made all the easier by the manner in which too many honest scientists like Professor Ioannidis continue to pose as objective researchers who are completely detached from politics.[11] Ioannidis refers to himself simply as a “data-driven technocrat.” So it was that as soon as Ioannidis and his colleagues released a scientific study which could be used to undermine the science of the lockdown they predictably became the darlings of Fox News and other right-wing media outlets. Here on such hostile terrain Ioannidis’ honest enthusiasm to answer questions about his research made him an easy target for conniving interviewers and their carefully phrased and ideologically loaded questions. This in turn led to (ill-informed) accusations that all critics of the science of the lockdown were dupes of the far-right. This charge is ironic given that much of the so-called mainstream media have spent decades promoting talking points that pandered to the far-right, whether they were promoting the myth that climate chaos is not a thing, arguing that smoking might not cause cancer, that American citizens don’t want a free public healthcare system, or that socialists were the devil incarnate.

Resisting barbarism

In conclusion, while legitimate questions still need to be openly discussed about when draconian lockdowns are scientifically justified, it is apparent that the worlds basic healthcare systems, which had been eroded by decades of corporate profiteering, were in no fit state to function effectively during any pandemic. It is this deliberate neglect of our globes crumbling and sometimes barely existent health infrastructure that has quite rightly diminished public trust in capitalist governments worldwide and is now enabling right-wing populists to gain in electoral strength. These consequences were entirely foreseeable; and so, moving forward we should be clear that the working-class should no longer be made to endure capitalisms growing crises. In the first wave of this pandemic the poorest in society have already paid with their lives because of the unwillingness of our leaders to prioritize human needs over the needs of rapacious corporations. So, now the only rational way forward is for ordinary people to take direct control of their lives and join in the international fight for a socialist future.

So, what will this entail? Firstly, this will involve us recognizing that our health systems need a massive investment of finances and human resources – an expansion which must be coordinated under the democratic control of health workers, patients and trade unions. We cannot trust capitalist politicians or members of the billionaire-class to mismanage our health any longer. The necessary money for implementing such sweeping improvements already exists in abundance: this cash will be liberated from the vast surplus profits that are produced by the working-class every day — wealth which under normal circumstances is siphoned away from us by the billionaire-class.

Scientific research must now be unleashed from the stifling dictates that have been imposed on it by corporate profiteering. And the huge multinational corporations that dominate drug production must be nationalized and managed by ordinary workers, to meet the needs of the working-class. Only then, can any semblance of trust be rebuilt in all the scientific and medical innovations that must now be harnessed to improve all our lives. As part of this democratic transition all the leach-like health profiteers will need to be extracted from our health services. This will then enable us to establish the type of first-class global healthcare systems that can ensure that the majority of the world’s population are no longer forced to settle for less than the best that science can offer.

None of this will be easy, but these urgent tasks are necessary if we are to deal with the threat posed by Covid-19, the devastating heath consequences caused by the imposition of global lockdowns (which will be felt in the coming months), and other future pandemics. “As things stand today capitalist civilization cannot continue; we must either move forward into socialism or fall back into barbarism.” These words may have been first put down on paper in 1892 but they remain relevant today. So, let’s move forward together through this pandemic by vowing that we will never return to barbarism again, and pledge to fight together against our class enemies to make a socialist alternative a living reality.

Michael Barker is a socialist writing under lockdown in Leicester, UK.


[1] Tragically the exploitation of humanity that is endemic to both capitalism and big pharma continues unabated, and in recent years the situation has only grown worse, which partly explains the need for Gøtzsche’s 2019 book Death of a Whistleblower and Cochrane’s Moral Collapse. In this text Gøtzsche outlined the corporate take-over and potential demise of the Cochrane Collaborative as an organization whose founding intent was to keep a watchful eye on scientific research.

[2] Jefferson is currently working with the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine (at Oxford University). The early implications of Jefferson’s work on influenza were discussed by the Financial Times in November 2007; while an article carried in the British Medical Journal (January 27, 2020) indicates that he is currently “suing the drug company Roche in the US, claiming that it defrauded federal and state governments by falsely claiming that its antiviral drug oseltamivir (Tamiflu) could be a powerful tool in mitigating a flu pandemic.” For a very useful interview undertaken with Jefferson on July 17, see “Oxford epidemiologists: suppression strategy is not viable.”


[3] In the US the overblown estimates for flu fatalities peaked at an unusually high 61,000 estimated deaths in the year 2017-18, which dropped to 34,157 the following year. While another related estimate for the same years is averted deaths owing to the flu shot, which for the year 2017-18 was 5,700, while in 2018-19 was 3,500. But here it is important to remember that an unknown proportion of the estimated flu deaths are likely to be related to other “less famous viruses” for which vaccines don’t even exist.

[4] Gøtzsche writes: “Unfortunately, vaccine deniers are so powerful in the United States that it has led to self-censorship for truth-seeking scientists. A New York Times reporter wrote: ‘When I tried to report on unexpected or controversial aspects of vaccine efficacy or safety, scientists often didn’t want to talk with me. When I did get them on the phone, a worrying theme emerged: Scientists are so terrified of the public’s vaccine hesitancy that they are censoring themselves, playing down undesirable findings and perhaps even avoiding undertaking studies that could show unwanted effects. Those who break these unwritten rules are criticized. The goal is to protect the public — to ensure that more people embrace vaccines — but in the long-term, the approach will backfire. Our arsenal of vaccines is exceptional, but it could always be better. Progress requires scientific candor and a willingness to ask inconvenient questions.’”

[5] After making this point Gøtzsche then moves on to discuss the time when compulsory flu vaccinations were introduced for pre-schoolers in New York. He notes that the initially successful legal case that was mounted against the mandate (which was passed in the final days of Michael Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor for the Democrats) was later “overturned by the highest court.”

[6] David Broder, “The deadly symptoms of Italy’s anti-vaccination movement,” New Statesman, February 22, 2019.

[7] Jonathan Kennedy, “Populist politics and vaccine hesitancy in Western Europe: An analysis of national-level data,” European Journal of Public Health, 29(3), June 2019.

[8] The main evidence popularized in Ioannidis’ first article revolved around scientific research undertaken on the COVID-19 mortality rates observed on the cruise ship the Diamond Princess. Here despite the wide spread of the virus Ioannidis wrote that the case fatality rate was just 1%. (In later weeks more people died placing the final case fatality rate at 2% — which was still low considering that the high proportion of elderly people on the cruise ship.)

In subsequent weeks Ioannidis would go on to co-author a research paper (with 16 other academics) based upon anti-body tests undertaken within the population of Santa Clara County, California; a preliminary version of this paper was then published online on April 17 making the case that the fatality rate for coronavirus was likely much lower than previously estimated (between 0.12% and 0.2%). As the New York Times (May 14) reported: “Within hours, the paper had been leveraged by conservative commentators and activists on social media, forged into ammunition to support the protests against lockdowns and other social mitigation efforts meant to contain the coronavirus and minimize deaths.” The limitations of this single study were correctly and quickly exposed by the scientific community, with an early summary of such criticisms (published on April 22) being presented by BuzzFeed News’ science writer Stephanie Lee; and while the Santa Clara County study had many limitations, soon something resembling a witch-hunt was launched against the study’s multiple authors, with Lee writing another particularly damaging article that alleged financial misconduct (published on May 15).

Ioannidis responded (on May 9) to many of his critics concerns, and there followed a more useful interpretation of the controversy that was published on June 11 as “John Ioannidis and medical tribalism in the era of Covid-19.” As the article argues, the manner in which Ioannidis has been maligned is highly problematic, as “Ioannidis’ views on lockdowns, far from aligning with a Trumpian desire to benefit Wall Street, are consistent with his longstanding body of work, which has regularly pointed out how researchers often downplay or ignore the harms of medical interventions.” However, what is clear is that comparisons between the fatality rates of influenza (which are often vastly overstated, as discussed earlier) and the novel coronavirus only serve to confuse matters especially when undertaken “in an attempt to minimize the effects of the unfolding pandemic.”(These problems are discussed in this useful research paper, “Assessment of deaths from COVID-19 and from seasonal influenza,” May 14.)

More recently the tone of the pandemic debate in the scientific community has mellowed somewhat and on June 3 Ioannidis was able to put the case for opposing the lockdown in a short piece that was published in the British Medical Journal. Then on May 19 Ioannidis published an academic preprint of a new study he authored (which he updated on June 8) which provided a critical synthesis of existing seroprevalence studies undertaken across 14 countries (which highlighted that infection fatality rates (IFR) ranged between 0.02% to 0.78%). He concluded: “Estimates of infection fatality rates inferred from seroprevalence studies tend to be much lower than original speculations made in the early days of the pandemic.” Importantly he writes: “The median of 0.26% found in this analysis is very similar to the estimate recently adopted by CDC for planning purposes. The fact that IFR can vary substantially also based on case-mix and settings involved also creates additional ground for evidence-based, more precise management strategies. Decision-makers can use measures that will try to avert having the virus infect people and settings who are at high risk of severe outcomes. These measures may be possible to be far more precise and tailored to specific high-risk individuals and settings than blind lockdown of the entire society.” Just a few days after the publication of Ioannidis’ preliminary study he then co-authored another useful article on the web site of the International Institute of Forecasters that reviewed the reasons for forecasting failures during this pandemic; in this paper he made recommendations for how such errors might be avoided in the immediate future, see “Forecasting for COVID-19 has failed,” June 11. (The seroprevalence study was updated again on July 14.)

For the best overview of Ioannidis’ views on why lockdowns turned out to be necessary because of government incompetence see Saurabh Jha, “A conversation with John Ioannidis,” The Health Care Blog, July 9, 2020. As Ioannidis explained:

“By February, we missed the window for nipping the novel coronavirus in the bud. Had we acted earlier, with aggressive testing, tracing, and isolating, like the South Koreans, the Taiwanese and the Singaporeans did, the virus wouldn’t have spread as wildly as it did. The biggest lesson from this pandemic is that the costs of delaying controlling the infection can be substantial. Act decisively in haste or repent at leisure.

“Once we missed the boat, the lockdown was inevitable. I say “inevitable” grudgingly because I don’t think it should have reached that eventuality.”

[9] Owing to the longstanding and toxic relationship that exists between big pharma and capitalist profiteering, and the existence of toothless regulatory agencies (like the EPA and FDA), some vaguely left-leaning critics of capitalism have increasingly found themselves acting as bedfellows of far-right conspiracists. Historically speaking this is particularly the case when it comes to the false portrayal of government-promoted vaccinations as causing autism; but the same has become true regarding the questioning of the science that is guiding pandemic responses. Thus informed by legitimate criticisms of the WHO’s historic failures – which have largely been caused by its leading funders sabotaging its already limited autonomy – well-meaning journalists have ended up melding their criticisms of the dangerous pandemic response priorities caused by the profit motive with unfounded conspiracies that have been popularized by the far-right. A good example of this is provided by the 2016 documentary TrustWHO, which criticizes the corporate capture of the WHO and is otherwise generally quite useful except for one sentence in the films introduction which incorrectly suggests that vaccines cause autism (a subject that, incidentally, is not even explored by the documentary).

One non-conspiratorial critic featuring in TrustWHO is German Velasquez, a former senior WHO official who had already authored a trenchant criticism of his former employers role in the 2009 H1N1 pandemic (see “Reforming and restoring WHO to good health”). Another insider critic interviewed in the documentary is Wolfgang Wodarg, a leading member of the German Social Democratic Party, who believes that the current pandemic is an elite-driven conspiracy. His wrong-headed belief in a conspiracy was clearly been informed by his involvement into official investigations into the H1N1 pandemic of 2009 that had demonstrated how corporations had corrupted both the WHO and agenda-setting in global health matters (both true). Since then he has been correctly criticized for airing his conspiratorial views through far-right media outlets associated with the AfD.

In March, one of the co-producers of the TrustWHO documentary, Robert Cibis, carried out a now notorious pandemic interview with Wodarg (streamed on YouTube on March 13) which became a viral sensation. Thereafter Cibis carried out an interview with John Ioannidis (March 26) which YouTube eventually deleted, although a second interview conducted with Ioannidis on April 3 is still online. Presently Cibis is looking to bring a variety of critical voices together in a forthcoming documentary called As this new documentary project evolved it apparently attracted the interest of John Kirby, another film-maker who previously served as the Director for the excellent documentary The American Ruling Class (2005). Unfortunately Kirby’s apparent opposition to vaccines has led him to believe, like Wodarg, that the current pandemic is just a ruling-class conspiracy. And so in addition to undertaking a lengthy interview with Ioannidis on April 17 (as part of a series of interview entitled “Perspectives on the pandemic”) on June 9 Kirby interviewed a leading far-right anti-vaccination activist/nurse called Erin Marie Olszewski who used her interview to expound her belief that the pandemic is a hoax. (It is worth noting that Kirby’s series of contrarian interviews is promoted by the Journeyman Pictures — an independent film distributor based in the UK. This distributor was involved in the release of TrustWHO and all manner of left-leaning independent documentaries, but their tendency to trade in far-right conspiracies too is demonstrated by their 2015 decision to re-release Alex Jones’ infamous 9/11 conspiracy film Loose Change 9/11: An American Coup.

[10] Richard Orange, “Mood darkens in Sweden as high death rate raises tough questions over lack of lockdown,” Daily Telegraph, June 8, 2020. As in other countries Sweden’s response to the pandemic failed to implement measures that could protect the most vulnerable populations from the coronavirus. This owed much to the fact that despite the positive press Sweden often receive in the liberal media outside their own country for being a rare haven for socialist ideas, over the past decades all mainstream political parties in Sweden have been attacking all the gains previously won by the organized working-class. Thus: “After decades of cuts and the privatisation of the welfare state in general, and social and elderly care in particular, preparedness to deal with a pandemic was dramatically reduced from the very outset.” It is the unwillingness of pro-capitalist leaders to fight for the needs of the working-class that helps explain the rise of the far-right in Sweden.

[11] Of course, you can’t stop right-wing propaganda outfits picking scientists that support their own favoured talking-points, as it is no different from the way in which all capitalist media networks, whether liberal or conservative, continually misreport on scientific breakthroughs to serve their own pro-capitalist political agendas. However, the end result of all this misreporting has been the creation of a public discourse that renders science and its democratic potential largely incomprehensible to ordinary people. This is not good for anyone except the capitalist profiteers who happily turn a profit from all this confusion by selling us their latest medical remedies without needing to properly demonstrate that they have provided adequate evidence to support their products often outlandish claims.

Combatting Surveillance Capitalism

Close scrutinization of the daily lives of workers has always played an important role in enabling capitalists to squeeze greater profits from their workforce. The relentless surveillance of employees, whether it be on the factory floor or in the workers’ homes, was something that the anti-Semitic industrialist, Henry Ford, was proud to have honed to a fine managerial art. This history is well-established. In fact, the website of the Henry Ford Museum boasts that a central part of the Ford Motor Company’s much vaunted $5 per day profit-sharing plan, which was rolled out in 1914, was that Ford “opened up the most intimate and personal details of employee’s personal, family, and financial life to investigators from the [Ford] Sociological Department.”

History, however, demonstrates that surveillance (in this case of a paternalistic variety) ultimately failed in its objective to pacify the workforce. Ford workers responded by becoming better organised. This in turn led the Ford managers to create something called the Service Department – a body which effectively served as an anti-union paramilitary arm of the Ford Motor Company. Hence especially during the mighty upsurge of trade union militancy in the 1930s, highly developed forms of espionage and violence were systematically deployed by Ford’s private army against any workers who strived to democratise their workplaces and their lives. The battle between workers and bosses continues to this day.

Professor Shoshana Zuboff’s shocking book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier (Profile Books, 2019) brings this history of corporate surveillance up-to-date, providing page after page of horrifying revelations concerning the depravity of contemporary capitalism. Most of all, however, her book codifies the dangerous shortcomings of petty-bourgeois intellectuals who rail only against selected aspects of working-class repression. So, while Zuboff’s hefty 700-page tome does shed light upon recent developments in how surveillance technologies are deployed against the working-class, she fails to provide a clear context for how these methods became institutionalised and, ultimately, how they are intrinsically linked to capitalism itself.

In charting the recent evolution of what she calls surveillance capitalism, Zuboff correctly focuses her anger upon the rise of corporate giants like Google and Facebook and their “ruthless expropriation” of behavioural surplus value which they scrape together from our online activities “for the purposes of shaping individual behaviour”. She explains:

“At its core, surveillance capitalism is parasitic and self-referential. It revives Karl Marx’s old image of capitalism as a vampire that feeds on labor, but with an unexpected turn. Instead of labor, surveillance capitalism feeds on every aspect of every human’s experience.” (p.9)

Yet Zuboff revives Marx’s theories not because she likes to engage with Marxist ideas, but precisely because she is adamant that the problem is not capitalism per se, but just its latest “rogue” iteration — surveillance capitalism. In grounding her fairy tale that “Capitalism evolves in response to the needs of people in a time and place” when it has only ever been responsive to the needs of capitalists — she repeatedly refers to the benign leadership of Henry Ford (1863-1947) as demonstrating how far things have gone wrong since his glory days of managerial insight. Zuboff would do well to read some books about Ford’s toxic legacy.

According to Zuboff’s belief in good and bad forms of capitalism, its latest form, surveillance capitalism, evokes for her the bad old times of the late-nineteenth-century when robber barons “defended their new capitalism from democracy at any cost.” She even furnishes a definition of industrial capitalism (the bad type that she says was dominated by robber barons) as a system “driven by its own inner logic of accumulation” and “profit maximization”. How this differs from other forms of capitalism is unclear.

To give her some credit, Zuboff appreciates that major reforms under capitalism were won by ordinary workers. Thus, she explains how significant reforms were attained when “we once withdrew agreement to the antisocial and antidemocratic practices of raw industrial capitalism, righting the balance of power between employers and workers by recognizing workers’ rights to collective bargaining and outlawing child labor, hazardous working conditions, excessive hours, and so on.”

But contrary to Zuboff’s claims, the move away from a bad industrial capitalism to an enlightened Ford-era form of capitalism is a myth, especially when we consider capitalism’s never-ceasing depredations against workers on a global scale. Instead the international battle for workers’ rights has always been a work in progress; a battle that has been opposed with great ferocity by all capitalists, whether their methods be the blunt ones wielded by early robber barons, or those anti-democratic techniques that were sharpened by the likes of Ford and further honed today by Google and Facebook today. Zuboff’s petty-bourgeois rendering of politics consequently leads to her mistaken conclusion that to secure a more democratic future workers must simply limit their demands for a nicer capitalism. However, reverting back to the days of Henry Ford style capitalism will, we can be sure, provide no meaningful solutions for the working-class.

What is clear is that the priorities of surveillance capitalists, like all capitalists before them, stand in direct contradiction to issues of equality or democracy; making them more democratic is not a solution, what is necessary is abolishing their entire system of oppression! Here, even Zuboff furnishes an intriguing example of how capitalist greed always trumps human need, when she highlights how Facebook has enabled advertisers to reach out to demographic audiences who were interested in questions like “how to burn Jews”. Similarly, she explains how Google has let advertisers actively seek profits from racists who have previously searched online for terms like “evil jew” and “Jewish control of banks.”

These reactionary and now profitable themes for Facebook and Google were of course first popularised in the 1920s by Henry Ford, a certain historical irony that Zuboff remains blissfully ignorant of. Yet in the same way that Zuboff ignores Ford’s commitment to both the growth of the Nazi state and to the corporate surveillance of employees, she shows the same errant disregard for the long and sordid history of state surveillance of the American public, activities which were at every step carried out in close cooperation with corporate elites.


cp surveillance

The American Federation of Teachers and the CIA (1978)

The following pamplet by George Schmidt was first published in 1978 as “The American Federation of Teachers and the CIA” (Chicago: Substitutes United for Better Schools).



The research that went into this pamphlet was done by members of Substitutes United for Better Schools and the Midwest Research Group. It is continuing. We hope that this study provides the basis for debate and further analysis of the question.

A number of people around the world deserve most of the credit for persistently focusing public attention on the machinations of the CIA in general and within the labor movement in particular. The pioneer of work in the area of the CIA and labor was Sidney Lens, an outstanding leader of the anti-war movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s whose roots go back to the labor radicalism of the 1920’s. For many of us, Sid Lens is one of those most responsible for bridging the gap between the older generation of American radicals and our generation.

Both at home and abroad, a number of tireless researchers and writers have continued to focus on these questions—often at great personal expense. Fred Hirsch, who first introduced the labor movement in California to AIFLD’s role in the Chile coup, needs more thanks than he can be given. Rodney Larson of Transnational Features Services has been insistent in his help. We all owe both of these men a debt of gratitude.

A number of helpful individuals prefer at this time to provide their assistance in anonymity. This is understandable, since the vindictiveness of those who deal in the lives of millions is well known. It is hoped that this pamphlet and the debate that follows will increase the freedom—true freedom—for all points of view to be aired in America without fear of reprisal by decent people.

Four groups of people must be mentioned. The substitute teachers of Chicago have helped to inspire this effort. Like their counterparts in the 1930’s who built the local unions of the American working people, they have insistently refused to take no for an answer. Denied a voice in union affairs, they have made their enforced silence the loudest of all voices for justice.

A number of the founders and older members of the Chicago Teachers Union deserve to be remembered, rather than slandered. Their selfless work 40 years ago built a union that, all too often, has become the watering place of “leaders” of less character and integrity than they.

Our students are one of the most important reasons why we cannot let the lies of those in power dominate our lives. Hundreds of high school students in the inner city of Chicago over the past four years have taught me much about education, learning, and the importance of honesty. In our schools and classrooms, they give the lie to the claims of the leaders of our union and the slander of politicians like Dr. Moynihan, who claimed that teaching in their schools and their communities was like being led to Eichmann’s ovens. The future must be for them. My fondest hope is that they will learn to make a world where they can live in peace and decency and where the ideas spread by the Moynihans are laid to rest, once and forever.

Finally, to those men and women of the world movement for liberation in the past twenty years, both at home and abroad, who have managed to turn back the power of the dollars and begin to create the world that we all should be building.


In 1966, Ramparts magazine published an article charging that the National Student Association had  been receiving funds from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency for its international work. The following year, both the New York Times and the Washington Post charged that William G. Carr, executive secretary of the National Education Association and secretary general of the World Confederation of Organizations of the Teaching Profession, had knowingly accepted CIA money and helped organize a foundation that became a transmission belt for the CIA.

The American Federation of Teachers responded to the NEA revelations by stating: “The integrity of  teachers has been compromised and American educators who go abroad, seeking links with colleagues in Europe, Asia and Africa, will henceforth be under suspicion that they may not be acting independently, but as arms of their government. If so, what makes them better than the agents of totalitarian lands?”

In May, 1967, AFT National President Charles Cogen called on the NEA to open its books and clear theair. Cogen declared:

Covert CIA financial and political influence of American organizations is repugnant to our democracy. Unless the true extent of such infiltration is known, all international and national operations of the NEA must be suspect.

In a telegram to William Carr of the NEA, Cogen stated:

The AFT has never engaged in any covert activities, nor has it accepted such funding asis here involved, nor has the International Federation of Free Teachers Unions (IFFTU).

In the following months, more disclosures of covert CIA financing of supposedly democratic organizations came to light. It was also revealed that the CIA was recruiting and possibly spying on the campuses of America’s universities. The AFT and its members protested vigorously.

As a result of the revelations of the CIA’s covert financing of so-called “free” organizations, the CIA itself disbanded the numerous “charitable foundations” which had served as its cover—or at least it claimed to do so. The Congress for Cultural Freedom, the National Student Association, and the National Education Association did in fact sever their CIA ties. But a lot of stonewalling went on before they did.

Ten years after the AFT proudly proclaimed its freedom from CIA influence and money, one of America’s most famous CIA labor missionaries was invited by AFT president Albert Shanker to speak at the union’s annual convention. Irving Brown, identified in the convention program as the “AFL-CIO Representative in Europe,” was to speak to the Labor Education Luncheon. Brown’s financial relations with the CIA made the NEA’s look like small change. No less a man than Thomas Braden, who had been the director of CIA’s Special Operations in Europe during the 1950’s, had proudly boasted that hehad gone to the “vaults of the CIA’ to fund Brown’s European adventures.

The invitation to Brown from AFT president Albert Shanker, the support given to Brown’s speech by Shanker’s assistant Al Loewenthal, and the reception given the speech by the small number of AFT luminaries who actually heard Brown, raise some serious questions about “the integrity of teachers” now working in international programs sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers.

Unfortunately, much has changed since 1967 within the AFT. There was very little free and open discussion of the union’s international affairs and labor education programs at the 1977 convention. There was no ringing denunciation of covert subversion of teachers’ integrity. Although a vast majority of the delegates to the convention responded to the calls of the United Action Caucus and the Black Caucus of AFT to “Boycott CIA Goods,” the issue has not been met. In 1978, the AFT leadership plans further expansion of the union’s international affairs programs and the convention is likely to approve the resolutions.

Today, the American Federation of Teachers is three times larger than it was in the days of Charles Cogen’s presidency. It is a power in the AFL-CIO. AFT president Albert Shanker sits on the AFL-CIO Executive Council.

But within the union, many doors have closed and many voices have been silenced since the move to elect Shanker national president began in the early 1970’s and culminated with his victory in 1974.Members face harassment and intimidation—verbally, to be sure—for the expression of views that don’t show the team spirit demanded of the national leadership’s “Progressive Caucus.” Delegates to national union conventions from the largest union locals—the ones that control the outcome of convention votes—sign “loyalty oaths” pledging to support the caucus line before they are allowed to be slated for the delegations by the leadership. Important votes are published since the secret ballot was abolished at the beginning of Shanker’s presidency. Those who vote “wrong” know what they face. While open debates still take place, they are becoming fewer and farther between with each passing convention year. And if the leadership has its way this year, the conventions will be every two years, giving the rank and file still less of a voice in national union affairs.


Parts of the information contained in this pamphlet were originally published in two installments in the newspaper Substance, the periodical of the Chicago substitute teachers organization Substitutes Unitedfor Better Schools (S.U.B.S.). S.U.B.S. was founded in 1975 as both a caucus within the Chicago Teachers Union (Local 1 of the AFT) and an organization of substitute teachers. Its primary goal since its founding has been the furthering of the cause of substitute teachers both within the union and before the Board of Education.

But since its founding, S.U.B.S. has also taken up important political issues facing the union, the Board of Education, and the schools. While our primary goal will continue to be the furthering of the basic trade union and economic welfare of substitute teachers, we will continue to take on other issues as well.

The research that went into this pamphlet was done by a number of people, most of whom are members of the American Federation of Teachers. Since the publication of the first installment of the series in Substance in January, 1978, a great amount of information and material has been made available to us. The result has been that the original material—while still accurate in its main lines—has had to be rewritten and expanded. The present work marks a point in the development of our understanding of the questions involved. When we arrived in Boston for the 1977 AFT convention, we did not expect that one year later we would be in the middle of this project.

I apologize for those parts of this pamphlet that may be hard to read. It was hard to write. I hope that as this issue becomes more a matter of debate and record that it will be possible to clarify both the conception and the execution of its thesis. But the thesis, as stated in the title, is unfortunately true. There will be dodges and evasions and, probably ad hominems from both sides. But our job as teachers and unionists is to work for the truth, as well as for the team.

The truth of the history of the AFT will come out. It is today at the same time one of the best unions in this country and one of the worst. We won’t get better by ignoring our weaknesses.

In 1974, the American Federation of Teachers elected Albert Shanker as its president and swept into power the leaders of the Progressive Caucus who still run our union. The incumbent president, David Selden, was defeated by a large majority, despite the fact that he had presided over the greatest period of growth and democratic strength in the union’s history.

I returned to teaching in Chicago and to the union in 1974, four months after that election. At the time I knew nothing about it.

It’s history now, but it may be appropriate to quote David Selden’s nominating speech at the 1974convention to end this introduction. It still rings of the truth, despite four years and many attempts to rewrite our history.

I am running for re-election as president of the AFT and I am running on the ticket of the Coalition for a Democratic Union and urge you to support all the candidates for vice-president on this ticket.

The election is a very fateful one for the AFT.  It could, if you vote for my principal opponent, make a change in the direction, a change in the direction of our union at a time when our membership growth is the greatest ever. Our financial condition is the best ever. Our moral influence in the United States and throughout the world is at the pinnacle of success, and yet you are being asked by my principal opponent to change that direction.

Now, what have we done in the past few years that has changed the direction the AFThas taken?

Well, we voted to endorse a presidential candidate, Senator George McGovern, in ’72.

I supported that candidate and I carried out your will and my principal opponent did not.

In ’72 we finally got around to condemning the Vietnam War in spite of all the efforts of my principal opponent to keep us from acting on that question.

Now you trust the convention. I trust you and I follow your mandates.

In ’72 we endorsed the women’s rights amendment, and since that time, I have done everything possible to facilitate AFT preparations in that campaign. I defy my opponent to show a similar record.

Throughout the years, we have been a leader in the civil rights movement. I have, throughout my time in office, constantly expanded the AFT role in civil rights and many times that has been very difficult for my principal opponent.

All of my effort is a matter of record, and efforts to amend or distort it are untrue andcan be easily refuted.

This pamphlet is about some of the things that have changed about the AFT since then.

———— George N. Schmidt, Local 1, 8/14/78

Chapter One: Cooperating Around the World

Direct links between the 430,000 member American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have been forged and strengthened since the election of NewYork’s Albert Shanker  as AFT national president in 1974. Prior to that time, a number of national union staff members had developed relations with the intelligence agency through the union’s various international affairs programs. Additionally, Shanker’s home local in New York, the huge Local 2 (United Federation of Teachers) had served as a base for CIA related labor activities through the AFTuntil Shanker himself assumed the national presidency. It was not until Shanker’s faction (the Progressive Caucus) took national power, however, that the weight of the teachers union became a full partner in government/CIA international affairs.

The AFT’s CIA connections are carried out through three foundations sponsored by theAFL–CIO, thelargest multinational corporations and the United States government’sAgency for InternationalDevelopment, AID. The oldest of the foundations, theAmerican Institute for Free Labor Development  (AIFLD), works in the Latin American nations. The African American Labor Committee (AALC)operates in Africa, while the Asian American Free Labor Institute (AAFLI) works in the non-communist nations of Asia. AFT/CIA connections are also carried out through the International Trade Secretariat for teachers unions, the International Federation of Free Teachers Unions (IFFTU). The IFFTU is one of 16 International Trade Secretariats (OR ITS’s). A number of these predate the cold war and function as multinational unions in the face of the transnational corporations, while a smaller number—particularly those founded after World War II—either cooperate with the U.S. intelligence or were actually established by the CIA itself in cooperation with the AFL and later, the AFL-CIO.

In addition to Shanker himself, national union staff members Al Loewenthal and Anthony DiBlasi carryout international trade union work through the AFT which involves the teachers union both internationally and domestically in U.S. intelligence and State Department activities. Other nationalunion personalities who have participated in these activities include Sandra Feldman, Velma Hill, Ponsie Hillmanand Vito DiLeonardis from Local 2 in New York. Former union staffer Denise Thiry  was among the most active of the AFT’s international people until her resignation in 1976. Thiry’s work included cooperation with the U.S. government in the coup d’etat that overthrew the Allende government in Chile in 1973. Before she was exposed as a police spy in Chicago, Sheli Lulkin, who was co-chairperson of the AFT Women’s Rights committee, had also begun to involve herself in international union and “women’s rights” activities. National union figures from Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco have also participated in the international affairs work of AFT since Shanker’s rise to power.

The most important domestic organization outside of the U.S. labor movement which cooperates in intelligence and State Department activities and is influential in the AFT is the Social Democrats-USA (SDUSA), a small “socialist” party based in New York and affiliated with the Social International (the descendant of the Second International). SDUSA members who serve in national leadership posts in the AFT include Albert Shanker, Sandra Feldman, Velma Hill and a significant minority of the union’s national staff members at the AFT offices in Washington, D.C. SDUSA, which operates out of offices in the International Ladies Garment Workers (ILGWU) building in New York, has a membership of less than 5,000 persons. Through its power within the AFL-CIO Executive Council and certain American trade unions, however, and through its connections with the U.S. government’s Cold War activities, its influence far outweighs its numbers in the top echelons of organized labor in America.

From this tiny “socialist” grouping are drawn a number of the intellectual apologists for the AFL-CIO’s Cold War policies and for the CIA’s activities. SDUSA members have secured a number of important staff posts within the AFL-CIO International Affairs Department and in different unions which cooperate in CIA-supported labor activities both at home and abroad. Within its own ranks, the SDUSA includes dozens of members with no direct affiliation to the labor movement whose work aids both public and clandestine foreign policy activity. The most prominent SDUSA members active in these affairs include Tom Kahn, head of the League for Industrial Democracy (an SDUSA affiliate with offices in the same office), who edits the AFL-CIO Free Trade Union News; Bayard Rustin, chairman of SDUSA and a number of other organizations, who serves as an apologist for “labor’s” racial policies; Carl Gershman, whose writings invariably back up AFL-CIO international positions; Thomas Brooks, who concentrates on writing “histories” of American labor from the anti-communist, Cold War  perspective; and Norman Hill, director of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, which encourages the training of Black labor leaders amendable to the AFL-CIO leadership’s positions.

Allied with the most powerful men and women in the AFL-CIO, the United States government, the transnational corporations, and the CIA, these people are working within the American labor movement to insure the perpetuation of the same Cold War policies that they helped formulate and execute during the last 35 years. The AFT, since 1974, has become their latest ally in that campaign.

Chapter Two: Irving Brown Speaks to the Teachers

The issue of the AFT’s relationship to the CIA and government-sponsored international “labor organization” came to a head during the union’s 61st annual convention in Boston in August, 1977. Prior to that time, Shanker and his aides had been quietly forging the chains that would insure his faction’s dominance in the union and at the same time bind the teachers to government policies both at home and, especially, abroad.

By the summer of 1977, Shanker apparently felt secure enough in his control over the AFT to bring an identified CIA agent, Irving Brown, to speak at the union convention.

Delegates arriving for the 1977 convention found that their official convention program listed the Wednesday luncheon as the “Labor Education Luncheon” featuring Irving Brown, billed as the “AFL-CIO representative in Europe,” as speaker.

Despite the fact that the AFT Black Caucus had spent more than six months preparing for its annual luncheon at the same time, the convention program made no mention of it. Black Caucus leaders arriving in Boston were surprised to find that their time was not even listed in the program, while Brown was prominently featured. The Black Caucus luncheon was to honor Paul Robeson, the famed Afro-American artist, athlete and revolutionary.

The Black caucus and the United Action Caucus (UAC) issued leaflets urging the delegates to “Boycott CIA goods” and attend the Robeson tribute instead. The UAC leaflet detailed Brown’s CIA affiliations. In the controlled atmosphere of the AFT conventions, many honest delegates are afraid of openly opposing the policies of the leadership on the floor or in their voting. Important votes are published and members who vote “wrong” are subject to reprisals. Nevertheless, the boycott was a success. On August 17, 1977, the morning of Brown’s scheduled speech, President Shanker announced that the Labor Education luncheon had been rescheduled to a smaller room. Efforts to give away the $7.50 tickets had failed. Rather than risk the embarrassment of a small turnout in a large room, Shanker fit the room to the expected crowd.

Interestingly, the Black Caucus leadership had been told that the minimum they could charge for their affair and still make a profit was $12.50. Tickets to the Labor Education Luncheon, on the other hand, were being sold for $7.50. Nevertheless, the Black Caucus tribute drew 50 more persons than the Brown speech and the crowd stayed despite delays in the main speech caused by a “malfunctioning” in the sound system.

Irving Brown: From Communist to CIA

Irving Brown has been working with the CIA since the agency’s founding in 1947. He has been described by European trade union leaders as “Meany’s Man in Europe” and the “CIA man in European labor.” Prior to 1947, Brown had worked with the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) cooperating with the anti-fascist underground in Europe during World War II. Prior to that, Brown had been an American Communist and, during the 1930’s, a member of the “Lovestonites,” a small American communist group formed by former Communist Party secretary Jay Lovestone after his expulsion from the CP-USA in 1929.

During the war, Brown’s work against the Nazis and their allies had an additional goal: fighting the Soviet Union and preventing the spread of its influence during the war and in the post-war period.

It was difficult to organize for the Cold War while Russia was still America’s main ally in Europe. It was additionally difficult to organize against the Communists when the majority of those who were actually fighting fascism (and had been doing so since the Spanish Civil War and before) were Communists. While many members of the middle and upper classes in the occupied countries either endured the Nazi occupation or openly collaborated with them (like the Vichy government in France), it was the communists, some of the socialists, and their allies that formed the active core of the resistance movements in occupied Europe.

Furthermore, it was the Soviet Union, through the Red Army, that first stopped the Wehrmacht in 1942 and had turned around the fascist military before the other allies landed at Normandy in June, 1944.The European left—in both Eastern and Western Europe—emerged from the war with the prestige of the resistance to its credit. To this, the Communists added the prestige of the Red Army’s victories over the Nazi machine on the Eastern Front. The Cold War was not a hot commodity in Europe at the end of World War II.

Jay Lovestone, the Ladies Garment Workers Union, and the “Free Trade Union Committee”

But the Cold War was already on the agenda for Irving Brown, Jay Lovestone, and a core of professional anti-communists in the American Federation of Labor (AFL). At the beginning of the war, David Dubinsky, President of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), a former  socialist who had served time in Czarist prisons before migrating to America from Poland in 1911, sponsored the “Free Trade Union Committee” at the ILGWU offices in New York. Head of the Committee was Jay Lovestone, who had been head of the CPUSA until 1929.

American Communism had arisen after the end of World War I in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. After the CPUSA was consolidated in the mid-1920’s, Lovestone, like a number of other young intellectuals in the party, had risen quickly. Dominated by intense faction fighting throughout the decade, the party was split a number of times according to American conditions and, more importantly, the struggle for power within the Soviet Union.

Lovestone’s leadership position was assured by 1927 when his clout, Nicholai Bukharin, helped to defeat the “Trotskyists” and Leon Trotsky was exiled. The split with the Trotskyists reflected itself in the first major split in American Communism when James Cannon, Max Shachtman, and Martin Abern formed a faction which supported Trotsky’s position and were expelled from the CPUSA. Cannon, Abern, and Shachtman formed an organization of American Trotskyists which first claimed to be an “opposition” within the CPUSA, although the CPUSA had kicked them out. After the defeat of the left in Germany and the consolidation of Hitler’s power, the Trotskyists declared themselves independent of the CP. In 1938, they founded the Socialist Workers Party. During World War II, the Trotskyists themselves split, with Shachtman forming the Workers Party. Shachtman’s group would later become involved in the same kind of “international trade union work” as the Lovestonites, but their influencewas less important than Lovestone’s and will be dealt with later.

Unfortunately for Lovestone, Bukharin’s star had reached its zenith. By 1928, Bukharin and the so-called “right opposition” were under attack within the Soviet Union and through the Communist International, the Comintern. In 1929, Lovestone was personally unseated by Joseph Stalin. Upon his return to America, he reorganized his friends into Communist Party (Opposition), which functioned throughout the 1930’s as the CP (Opposition) and later as the Independent Labor League.

While still members of the Communist Party, a number of future Lovestonites within the ILGWU had carried out a faction fight which dominated the union’s internal politics during the 1920’s. Finally defeated by ILGWU president Morris Sigman, the Communists, according to a change in party line in the late 1920’s, established independent unions to compete with the AFL unions. Sigman’s lieutenant during the so-called Civil War within the ILGWU was Secretary-Treasurer David Dubinsky, a rightwing Socialist who would become the union’s president in 1930.

Part of Dubinsky’s genius as an anti-communist has been his willingness to bring ex-communists into the union fold. After he established his power in the union in 1931, he personally supported the seating of Charles Zimmerman, a Lovestonite who had been one of the fiercest factionalists during his tenure within the CP, as a delegate to the union’s national convention. Throughout his career, Dubinsky has shown his willingness to welcome talented ex-communists into his wing of the trade union movement, and the proof of his practice has been their success. Ex-communists became the fiercest anti-communists within both the American and world labor movements during and after World War II. And the most important of the ex-communists sponsored by Dubinsky was Jay Lovestone.

The “Free Trade Union Committee” (FTUC) was established in 1943 within the ILGWU. It quickly became influential within the AFL as a whole, through the work of Dubinsky and then-AFL Secretary-Treasurer George Meany. Within the next decade, it had secured a permanent place for itself with the AFL in Washington and Lovestone had once again become a commissar. This time, he was an anti-communist commissar.

The FTUC’s propaganda within the American labor movement called for both a cold war and a hot one against the Soviet Union while Russia was still our strongest ally in the fight against Nazism. Working with Meany and AFT vice president Matthew Woll, Lovestone’s former communist troops began functioning internationally during World War II. Although Irving Brown was by far the most important among them, three others were to play major roles in the labor wings of the Cold War. Serafino Romualdi, who had worked with the Italian language ILGWU newspaper before the war, becameLovestone’s man in Latin America. Richard Deverall worked Asia, and Henry Rutz was to become the special AFL representative in Germany after the war.

By the early 1950’s, when the Cold War was reaching its zenith, Lovestone had final say over all U.S.labor representatives overseas.

In discussing the work of Irving Brown and the role of the CIA in the American labor movement, it would be incorrect to claim that the CIA “subverted” American labor either at home or abroad during the 1940’s and 1950’s. Rather, the agency was invited in through the front door by man like Meany, Dubinsky and Lovestone, who were pushing for the Cold War long before it was fashionable. At the same time, it would be equally wrong to claim that this “relationship”—which has largely gone on behind the scenes both domestically and internationally—was healthy for the American labor movement or trade unionism around the world. Once inside labor’s tent, the CIA became the camel that wouldn’t leave.

The Work of Irving Brown in Europe

After the establishment of the Free Trade Union Committee in 1943, Lovestone began building the network that would have such vast influence in the post war arena. With the beginning of the Cold War in 1946 and 1947, the TFUC with ample money from the newly-formed CIA and other government agencies, along with some funds from the AFL, set out to split the European trade union movement, insure the correct line among European labor leaders, and establish anti-communist unionism along the lines of the AFL.

Brown was the main man in Europe. By all accounts, he was indefatigable. Tom Braden, now a syndicated newspaper columnist but at the time head of the CIA’s International Organizations Division, stated:

On the desk in front of me as I write these lines is a creased and faded yellow paper. It bears the inscription in pencil: ‘Received from Warren G. Haskins, 15,000, (signed) Norris A. Grambe.’

I was Warren G. Haskins. Norris A. Grambe was Irving Brown of the American Federation of Labor. The 15,000 was from the vaults of the CIA….

It was my idea to give the 15,000 to Irving Brown. He needed it to pay off his strong-arm squads in the Mediterranean ports, so that American supplies could be unloaded against the opposition of communist dock workers. It was also my idea to give cash, along with advice, to other labor leaders, to students, professors, and others who could help the United States in its battle with communist fronts….

In 1947 the Communist Confederation General de Travail led a strike in Paris which came  very near to paralyzing the French economy….

Into this crisis stepped Lovestone and his assistant, Irving Brown. With funds from Dubinsky’s union, they organized Force Ouvriere, a non-communist union. When they ran out of money, they appealed to the CIA. Thus began the secret subsidy of free trade unions which soon spread to Italy….

The first rule of our operational plan was ‘Limit the money to amounts private organizations can credibly spend.’ The other rules were equally obvious. ‘Use legitimate, existing organizations; disguise the extent of American interest; protect the integrity of the organization by not requiring it to support every aspect of official American policy.’

— (from “I’m Glad the CIA is Immoral,” by Thomas Braden, Saturday Evening Post, May20, 1967.)

While the CIA was cooperating with the AFL directly, it was working to split the CIO as a prelude to “merger” and “labor unity.” The split in the CIO was engineered by labor lawyer Arthur Goldberg, who had directed OSS labor operations during World War II and who worked with the CIA afterwards. Goldberg, a card carrying liberal all his life, later went on to become Secretary of Labor, SupremeCourt Justice, and United States Ambassador to the United Nations. But in 1949, his job was to organize the expulsion of ten “communist dominated” unions from the CIO.

In the same article, Braden reported that Victor Reuther, brother of United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther and head of the UAW International division, had acted as a courier for CIA money after the war. Despite the split between the AFL and the CIO in America, the CIA was willing to “cooperate” with labor leaders who were willing to cooperate with it. Reuther later repudiated the CIA. Brown never did.

Brown’s “strong arm squads” were organized into a “union” called Force Ouvriere (FO) in France. FO had emerged from World War II as a small, anti-communist union composed primarily of white collar workers. Through an organization called the “Mediterranean Committee,” Brown and his minions brought in members of the Sicilian Mafia to break strikes in post war France. The issue at the time was Marshall Plan aid, which the communist unions were opposing.

One of the most important jobs of the Mediterranean Committee was to gain control of the docks of Marseilles, where Brown’s mafia thugs broke the strike, killing a number of dockworkers and labor  leaders in the process. The intervention of Brown and his labor “organizers” is one of the first examples of “dirty tricks” used by the CIA in the international labor movement.

The situation in Marseilles became so rough that the leftist mayor of the city appealed for help from the national government, protesting the work of Brown and his friends.

Brown’s work had been supported with AFL money funneled through the FTUC even before the founding of the CIA. In a March 14, 1946 letter to Jay Lovestone, he stated that he needed $100,000 to continue his work to split the French trade union federation, the CGT, but that he could “make do” with$10,000. He got it with the help of Lovestone, Woll, Dubinsky, and Meany. After the CIA was formed and the Cold War begun in earnest, the original money Brown demanded would seem like chickenfeed. Braden estimated that between $2 million and $5 million went into the effort by the mid-1950’s.Drew Pearson estimated $100 million!

At the same time that he was working behind the scenes to support Force Ouvriere and similar operations on the continent, Brown also functioned directly as a representative of American labor in European conferences.

A fierce faction fight developed within the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), which had been formed by the Soviet Union, the trade unions of a number of European countries, and, most importantly, the British trade unions and the CIO after the war. The AFL’s goal was to split the WFTU in the same way it worked to split the CGT in France.

Brown was appointed representative from the International Association of Machinists (IAM) in 1948 to the executive committee of the International Metalworkers Federation, one of the International Trade Secretariats mentioned in the introduction to this pamphlet. Brown’s job was to build trade union support for the Marshall Plan, which the Soviet Union and the WFTU opposed. After more than a year of high level wheeling and dealing, the WFTU was split. In 1949, a Free World Labor Conference with delegates from 59 countries formed the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU). Brown participated as a representative of the Metalworkers.

One of the constant criticisms made by American labor leaders and right wingers of the WFTU is that itis an agency of the Soviet government and is controlled by the Soviet Secret Police (now know as the KGB).

These same leaders generally neglect to mention that their own “free” labor movement has been similarly controlled by the American Secret Police, the CIA. For the first 15 years of its existence, the ICFTU could be counted on to push the Cold War line of the U.S. government. When it failed to do so and criticized the United States for the Vietnam War, the AFL-CIO withdrew from it. By 1968, the “free” trade union confederation had become too free for the Americans.

A similar response was taken by the AFL-CIO in 1977 when the International Labor Organization (ILO) began adopting policies critical of Israeli treatment of Arab labor. In November, 1977, the AFL-CIO and its other American partners in the ILO officially withdrew the U.S. government’s delegation from the organization. According to U.S. representative to the ILO during his speech to the American Federation of Teachers in August, 1977, the ILO had become “too political.”

A number of ex-CIA agents have identified Brown’s relationship to the CIA. It has gotten to the point where he doesn’t even bother to deny the fact. In his book, Inside the Company, a CIA Diary, Phillip Agee (who has been forced into exile because of his revelations) identifies Brown as the “principal agent for control of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU).” Julius Mader ’s book, Who’s Who in the CIA? lists Brown in some detail. More importantly, perhaps, virtually every trade union leader in Europe associates Brown with the CIA. Even those who support the “free trade union” anti-communist ideas that Brown has pushed admit that his ties extend much further and deeper than the AFL-CIO.

Nevertheless, the leaders of the AFT in 1977 thought enough of their control of their union (and so little of its members) that they felt confident in listing Brown on the convention program as “AFL-CIO Representative in Europe.”

In the pages that follow, we will discuss the CIA’s ties with the foundations (AIFLD, AALC, and AAFLI) that are now actively supported by our union. Finally we will return to the questions raised by the AFT, Irving Brown, and CIA unionism.

One of the main questions that needs to be raised in every step of this investigation is “Where does the money come from?” Those who read the book or saw the movie All the President’s Men remember Deep Throat’s admonition to the reporters: “Follow the money.”

Unfortunately, in dealing with CIA conduits and CIA money nowadays things are not as simple as they were 15 or 20 years ago. Prior to the social upheavals in the United States in the 1960’s, the CIA generally followed Braden’s scheme of funneling money through legitimate fronts or setting up quasi legitimate organizations to act as conduits. The ILGWU, the Jewish Labor Committee, and a number of other organizations laundered CIA money on the way to Brown and his friends at the beginning of the Cold  War.

Embarrassing revelations of this practice during the 1960’s caused a change in the CIA’s modus operandi in money matters. When it was discovered that CIA money was being funneled into student groups, professional associations, and labor unions through CIA dummy “foundations,” the practice was reorganized. The National Student Association revelations and the exposure of CIA funding for the Congress for Cultural Freedom ended the days of the foundation, as far as can be determined.

Since that time, overseas funding for special projects has been channeled through United States government agencies. The most prominent of these is the Agency for International Development (AID), which is used to provide cover for both CIA money and CIA operatives around the world today. Norris Grambe no longer signs receipts for money from Warren Haskins today. But Norris’ dollars— and he has always had more than enough of them—come from the same “vaults” referred to in Braden’s article.

Chapter Three: The American Institute for Free LaborDevelopment (AIFLD)

The American Institute for Free Labor Development(AIFLD) is the oldest, largest, and wealthiest of the three international labor organizations founded by the AFL-CIO in the 1960’s. It is aimed at Latin America.

AIFLD was founded in 1962 as a non-profit corporation. George Meany is president; J. Peter Grace of W. R. Grace & Co. is Chairman of the Board. According to Fred Hirsch’s excellent pamphlet Under the Covers with the CIA: An Analysis of Our AFL-CIO Role in Latin America:

Originally an educational project, AIFLD now operates in several other elds—social projects, credit facilities, social action and “community development.”

The educational phase of the operation is massive. In Colombia and Peru, it has trained as much as 5% of the union membership—far exceeding any AFL-CIO training program in the U.S. In local seminars, people are chosen to participate in area-wide and nationwide seminars; from these are selected the most likely people (often they are not even trade unionists) who are offered a three-month course in AIFLD’s training center at Front Royal, Virginia. During this time the trainee’s family receives a stipend and the trainee gets a per diem payment in excess of what he or she would earn on the job.When the Front Royal course is completed, trainees are returned home where they continue on the AIFLD payroll for at least an additional nine months.

During their nine months of post graduate work, AIFLD’s trainees are called “interns.”

AIFLD’s educational programs teach trade union history; time and motion study; cooperatives; credit unions; and “Political systems: democracy and totalitarianism.” AIFLD’s social programs include housing projects. A 1968 Senate study found that the strings AIFLD attached to its housing grants were “too high a price to pay” for many Latin American unions. AIFLD demands complete control over the project.

By 1967, AIFLD’s annual budget was over $6 million. More than 90% of this came from the United States Agency for International Development (AID), with the rest coming from AFL-CIO unions and the corporations on the AIFLD Board of Directors.

The interest of the American labor movement in Latin America began under AFL president Samuel Gompers in the first decades of this century. It was not until the establishment of the Free Trade Union Committee during World War II and its evolution into the AFL (and, later, the AFL-CIO) International Affairs Department, however, that Latin American affairs for American labor were locked into the ColdWar.

Serafino Romualdi was Jay Lovestone’s commissar in Latin America until his death ten years ago.During the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, Romualdi worked through the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and various cooperative International Trade Secretariats to carry out Cold War policy in the name of American labor. Romualdi’s first job south of the border was to split the Latin American labor movement the same way Brown had split the European movement. In 1946, Romualdi reported to the AFL convention that U.S. government policy-makers, a number of whom opposed his work, were “If not openly allied, they are definitely supporting groups in Latin America who are enemies of the American way of life and who are followers of the Communist Party line.”

It is worth noting that Romualdi’s charges of “Communists in the State Department” came five years before Sen. Joseph McCarthy revealed his famous “list” that nobody ever saw. Romualdi’s threat had its effect. The Free Trade Union Committee and the AFL began receiving government support, while the Latin American Confederation of Labor (CTAL), which had the support of the CIO, came under attack. By 1948 the labor movement was split and minorities from unions in 17 countries formed the Inter-American Confederation of Labor (CIT). Romualdi’s work was exactly paralleling Brown’s.

By 1949,Arthur Goldbergand his friends in the CIO had split it, forcing the expulsion or disaffiliation of the so-called “communist dominated” unions. The CIO split with CTAL and lined up behind the CIT. The CIT became the “Pan American” branch of the ICFTU. The new organization was the Inter-American Organization of Workers (ORIT).

ORIT became so identified with U.S. policy that it outlived its usefulness in Latin America within the decade. In 1968, a staff report of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations stated:

…there seems to be a decline in ORIT prestige in Latin America. More fundamental, perhaps, has been the tendency of ORIT to support U.S. government policy in Latin America. ORIT endorsed the overthrow  of theArbenz regime (in 1954) in Guatemala and of the Goulart regime (in 1964) in Brazil. It supported Burnham over Cheddi Jagan  in Guyana, and it approved the U.S.  intervention in the Dominican Republic. To many Latin Americans, this looks like ORIT is an instrument of the U.S. State Department….

Since the death of Romualdi, the AFL-CIO has been represented in ORIT byAndrew McLellan of the International Affairs Department. But the Department’s main concern has been with AIFLD, not ORIT, since the early 1960’s.

Fred Hirsch cites two examples of Romualdi’s work through ORIT in the 1950’s: Cuba and Guatemala. Prior to the victory of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Romualdi backed the Cuban Workers Federation (CTC). In exchange for the right to exist, the CTC gave silent support to the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. The leader of the CTC, Eusabio Mujal, kept a lid on Cuban labor for Batista by suspending union elections, removing opposition leaders from union office, opposing strikes and arranging for dues checkoff favors from the dictatorship. After Romualdi failed to make a deal with Fidel Castro, he and his faction in the CTC turned against the new government. When the new leadership came into power in the CTC after the revolution, Romualdi declared it a totalitarian union federation and supported the Cuban unions in exile in Miami.

Five years before the Cuban Revolution, ORIT assisted an admitted CIA operation in Guatemala. In 1954, Jacobo Arbenz was elected president of Guatemala and began a program of land reform programs which threatened the interests of the United Fruit Company. Prior to his election, Arbenz had full union support. Romualdi tried to organize a dual union federation and failed. His protégés then joined General Carlos Castillo Armas in organizing a CIA army In Nicaragua (with the help of, among others, E. Howard Hunt). Armas organized a coup d’etat which overthrew the Arbenz regime.Romualdi returned to Guatemala to “reorganize” the labor movement. George Meany announced that the “AFL rejoices in the downfall of the Communist controlled regime.” United Fruit kept its plantation. Interestingly, the same CIA bases used to train the Armas forces were used almost ten years later to train Cuban exiles for the Bay of Pigs invasion.


While ORIT was running out of credibility in Latin America, various International Trade Secretariats (ITS’s) under the CIA wing were gaining. The most important of these in the 1950’s were the Postal,Telephone, and Telegraph International (PTTI), the Public Service International (PSI), and the International Federation of Petroleum and Chemical Workers (IFPCW).

The ITS’s in the Western Hemisphere had worked closely with the ICFTU and ORIT throughout the1950’s. The American affiliates of the various secretariats represented the affiliation (and political orientation) within the AFL-CIO.

The Public Services International (PSI) played the leading role in the 1964 overthrow of the government of Cheddi Jagan in British Guiana. Six AIFLD “interns” were delegated to work full time on the political general strike that finally brought down the government. Another American active in the overthrow of Jagan was Gene Meakins, who went to the country in 1963 at the request of the Guiana Trades Union Council (TUC) as a representative of the Inter-American Federation of Working Newspapermen’s Organizations, an ORIT affiliate. Meakins, who was given a leave of absence from the UPI office in Denver, served as “Public Relations Advisor” to the TUC during the destabilization period prior to Jagan’s ouster.

Arnold Zander , former president of the American Federation of State, County, and MunicipalEmployees (AFSCME), later admitted using AFSCME and the PSI as a conduit for CIA funds during the chaos that brought down Jagan.Howard McCabe,Zander’s man in Guiana, received $450,000 funneled through AFSCME to help finance the strike in Georgetown.

AFSCME’s CIA connectionswere one of the factors that led to Zander’s ouster as national president by Jerry Wurf in 1964. Reflecting on the internal fight within AFSCME later, Wurf stated that Zander’s faction “spent very large sums of money. I believe I can make a strong case that it came from the CIA….” The campaign to defeat Wurf and his ticket even involved “dirty tricks.” A number of anonymous leaflets appeared. According to Wurf:

They [the Zander people] did other outrageous things. Some leaflets appeared, and though they could not be attributed to anyone, they had the professional touch. In one case the leafletter, one of their guys from New England, emphasized my big nose in anamateurish appeal to anti-Semitism….

Down south they circulated a picture of me handing a check to Roy Wilkins , head of the NAACP….

Despite the dirty tricks, Wurf and his supporters won the election. After they took over the union’s offices, one of their first jobs was to sever the CIA tie:

When Wurf first arrived at AFSCME headquarters following the ’64 convention, he noticed the presence of what he describes as “trench coat types.” One of these men was AFSCME’s alternate representative to the PSI, Howard McCabe. When the new president tried to nd out from McCabe and his associates exactly what they were doing in the building, he received vague explanations, and was advised to be patient and wait for the proper time to ask questions.

(Billings and Greenya, Power to the Public Worker,  pp. 146-147)

Wurf and his people decided to ask the CIA to leave. In 1966, the New York Times revealed that AFSCME, the Newspaper Guild, and the International Federation of Petroleum and Chemical Workers had been conduits for CIA funds and sponsors of CIA programs.

A similar relationship developed during the 1950’s between the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and ITS, the Postal, Telephone and Telegraph International (PTTI), and the CIA. In the case of the CWA, however, internal politics did not produce Jerry Wurf and his movement for union reform. Instead the CWA, PTTI, and the AFL-CIO produced the American Institute for Free Labor Development, AIFLD.

After a stormy beginning out of a federation of company unions in the Bell Telephone system, the CWA was born in 1947. Its predecessor, the National Federation of Telephone Workers (NFTW), had been founded in 1939 and had grown in strength and militancy during and after the Second World War. By 1947, the federation had changed its name to the Communications Workers of America, an industrial union embracing the majority of workers in the Bell system and its affiliates. The NFTW had not affiliated with either the AFL or the CIO. In 1949, the CWA affiliated with the CIO, largely because the AFL had persisted in raiding CWA union locals through the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

The CWA’s rise to prominence among “free trade unions” did not begin until after the merger of the AFL and CIO in 1955. A faction fight within the leadership in 1956 found CWA president Joseph Beirne, a former Western Electric worker in New Jersey and one of the founders of the union, facing ared baiting challenge from vice president A. T. Jones. Jones charged Beirne with “defending communists.” Beirne’s campaign was waged around his record and the question of free speech for a union member from Milwaukee who had been affiliated with the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party.

Beirne campaigned as an enemy of “totalitarianism” who refused to “practice totalitarianism within the union.” He won. After the election, the entire Jones faction was reintegrated into CWA leadership and Beirne faced no further challenge from then until his death in 1974.

The origins of AIFLD lie in the relationship between the CWA and the PTTI. According to Thomas Brooks, a writer for the SDUSA newspaper New America, and author of a recent history of the CWA:

CWA deeds have given life to CWA words in a way that is unique among unions. It has been active in the Postal, Telegraph and Telephone International (PTTI), a trade union secretariat representing telecommunications workers in all parts of the free world.

In 1959, however, CWA developed a unique program to give substance to its commitment to free trade unionism. CWA president Beirne, vice president RayHackney and Louis B. Knecht, then director District 9, initiated a project to provide direct, voluntary assistance from CWA District 9 locals to communications workers unionization efforts in Ecuador. Eighty locals pledged two dollars a month, which allowed Jose M. (Pepe) Larco, now the general secretary of the Ecuadorean Federation of Telecommunications Workers, to work full time as a union organizer in his country. Since then, CWA’s Operation South America has grown, sustaining union activities in thirteen different Latin American and Caribbean countries with all of CWA’s twelve districts involved.

(Brooks, Communications Workers of America, pp. 239-240).

“Pepe” looks different from Ecuador. During the 1950’s the nation had its first decade of civilian rule unpunctured by coups d’etat. In 1960, president Velasco Ibarra was re-elected president on a nationalist and anti-Yanqui platform. Refusing to break diplomatic relations with Cuba, he attempted to institute moderate reforms in the economy. His attempted populism could not solve the nation’s crisis, however. From 1961-63, the country swung to the left. Velasco was dumped by the Armed Forces and Carlos Julio Arosemena was recognized as his constitutional successor. Arosemena continued relations with Cuba and instituted radical land reform. He had the support of the majority of the peasants and the unions, with the exception of the small, “free trade union federation,” the Ecuadorean Federation of Free Trade Unions, or CEOSL.

In 1962, Arosemena was ordered by the military to break off relations with Cuba or be deposed. He did. Nevertheless, the following year, he offered a toast at a banquet honoring the president of GraceLines, Admiral McNeil:

To the people of the United States, but not to its government, which exploits the peopleof Latin America.

At dawn the next day, the presidential palace was surrounded by tanks.

Ecuador has had three trade union federations. The Ecuadorean Workers Federation (CTE) with 40,000 members in 800 unions, is close to the Ecuadorean Communist Party. The Catholic trade union federation, the Ecuadorean Confederation of Working Class Organizations (CEDOC), was originally anti-communist and conservative based in the Church and the Conservative Party. In recent years, it has taken a number of stands placing to the left of the CTE. The third federation is the CEOSL.

Pepe Larco’s telecommunications workers are affiliated with CEOSL. After the 1963 coup d’etat, both the CTE and CEDOC militants were persecuted by the junta. CEOSL received the same consideration from Ecuador’s right wing dictators that the Cuban Workers Federation received from Batista.

Out of the cooperation between the CWA, PTTI, and Larco came the idea for the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD).

In cooperation with the PTTI, CWA established a school for Latin American unionistsat Front Royal, Virginia. At the first graduation ceremony, AFL-CIO president George Meany, CWA president Beirne and a few others gathered around the same table and had an idea which became the American Institute for Free Labor Development organized under the aegis of the AFL-CIO.

Now in its fifteenth year, AIFLD graduates approximately 150 students a year who return to their countries with invaluable know-how about union organizing and union operations. CWA’s Operation South America, its involvement with PTTI, its support of Soviet dissidents, commitment to Israel and other democratic forces opposed to Soviet aggression and totalitarianism in all its forms is rooted in a deep concern, perhaps best expressed by AFL-CIO president Meany when he declared, ‘We feel that unless there is a free trade union movement, there’s always a danger of people losing their freedom—of people becoming chattels or becoming slaves or becoming colonial assets, as it were, of imperialist countries.’

(Brooks, p. 240)

AIFLD At Work 

AIFLD is what the AFL-CIO’s International Affairs Department people call a “tripartite” organization.Tripartism means that business, labor and government are all represented on AIFLD. That’s supposed to insure that things are worked out cooperatively, rather than through strikes and what has been called “class struggle.” AIFLD is the embodiment on the international level of the AFL-CIO’s philosophy of collective bargaining and “cooperation.” This has been called class collaboration.

In practice, tripartism has worked out quite well for the governments and corporations which don’t want their countries disrupted by class struggle. In theory , it is supposed to benefit the working peopleof the country as well.

AIFLD is jointly sponsored by the AFL-CIO, 95 transnational corporations, and the U.S. government. As we noted earlier, Meany is president and J. Peter Grace is Chairman of the Board. Mr. Grace is also chief executive of W. R. Grace & Co. W. R. Grace runs Grace Lines, among other enterprises. A military coup d’etat ousted Ecuadorean president Arosemena the morning after he insulted the president of Grace Lines in 1963. As AIFLD has proven over the years, it’s not nice to fool with tripartism.

A list of AIFLD’s corporate sponsors includes International Telephone & Telegraph, the various Rockefeller interests, the copper companies, and virtually every major transnational corporation with large interests in Latin America.

Like ORIT before it, AIFLD has come to be identified with right wing juntas, exploitation, and “Yanqui imperialism” south of the border. During its 16 year history, AIFLD has given enough evidence to support that charge. At the same time, it has poured out tons of propaganda talking about its good works for the consumption of North Americans who ask about it. AIFLD has also worked with the CIA.

The Money Behind AIFLD

According to AIFLD’s own documents, 92% of its budget comes from the United States Agency for International Development(USAID). That’s not the CIA. Or is it?

By the end of the 1950’s, the heyday of direct CIA subsidies to trade unions and other “free world” projects was coming to an end. In the ‘50’s, Tom Braden could funnel CIA money to Irving Brown and the others in the Free Trade Union Committee through organizations like the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the Jewish Labor Committee, and scores of “charitable” and “cultural” organizations. At the same time, the CIA established a number of dummy foundations around the country to give “grants” to worthy causes.

Conduits and grants through proprietary foundations became dangerous for the CIA. They could be uncovered by curious journalists, resulting in embarrassment to the recipients, who had been parading around the world as disinterested spokespeople for freedom.

When the National Education Association (NEA), the National Student Association (NSA), the Congress for Cultural Freedom, and a number of other organizations were exposed in the 1960’s as having received CIA money, a new tactic was needed. (Interestingly, it was the American Federation of Teachers that was one of the most vociferous critics of the NEA’s CIA connection when it came out.) The NSA lost all credibility on college campuses when Ramparts magazine blew its cover.

Exposures have continued to today. In December, 1977, the New York Times devoted four days of feature articles to the CIA’s manipulation of journalists and the media.

As a result, AID became the new “cut out” through which CIA money could be funneled to worthy causes. A broad range of good will programs serves as cover for the nuts and bolts of the operation. When things are going well, AIFLD is spending AID money to shore up “free trade unions” in such “free world” showplaces as Brazil, Argentina, the Dominican Republic, etc. In countries run by rightwing dictatorships, the only unions allowed to function are AIFLD-sponsored “free trade unions,” and since “free trade unionism” has to be cleared with the International Affairs Department of the AFL-CIO, these countries are really free. George Meany has said at least a hundred times that the degree of freedom in a country can be judged by whether it has a “free trade union movement.”

Chile is a good example. In 1973, Chile lost its democratically-elected President and regained its “free trade union movement” with the help of AIFLD, the Pentagon, the Chilean oligarchy, the right wing of the Catholic Church, and a group of freedom loving generals who proceeded to execute at least 30,000 people, most of them trade unionists.

AIFLD and Chile

By the early 1970’s, the CIA hadn’t had a good coup d’etat in Latin America in almost a decade. There had been a number of small actions since the Dominican Republic was “saved” in 1965, but the last really big event was the coup in Brazil in 1964 which overthrew the Goulart regime and installed the  beginning of a series of dictatorships that have made Brazil one of the safest places for investment in Latin America. AIFLD, by the way, bragged that its interns had helped.

As early as 1962, AIFLD was active in Chile. William C. Doherty, Jr. (son of the president of the Mail Handlers Union) led a delegation from AIFLD that met with Chilean labor leaders and offered loans for housing and coops. Doherty was followed by John Snyder and Ester Cantu of PTTI, who set out to organize telephone workers. The thing was, the telephone workers of Chile already had a union, the militant Union of Telephone Employees. Snyder and Cantu were unphased. They were out to organize a “free trade union” along the lines of Ecuador.

They got help from International Telephone and Telegraph, which runs the telephone system in Chile. They were given a list of company employees by the company. According to Fred Hirsch, “When Doherty’s people won the next union election, the company saw to it that the former militants of the Union of Telephone Employees were fired.” Again, free trade unionism meant dual unionism and company unionism. In this case, however, AIFLD’s company union went too far. In 1967 it was kicked out in another election. ITT could no longer deal with one of its partners in progress and had to deal with a union of the telephone workers.

Again Hirsch:

On a larger scale, AIFLD employed the dual union tactic used in so many other countries. In 1962, AFL-CIO representative Morris Paladino went to Chile to make a deal with Jose Goldsack, a leader of the minority Christian Democratic faction of the Central Confederation of Workers (CUT). The tactic was to split the CUT convention. The tiny National Confederation of Workers (CNT) and its largest member, the Maritime Confederation of Chile (COMACH) were to demand admission to the CUT convention. Paladino was to supply all back dues. If they were denied entry, it was to signal a mass withdrawal of the minority. Paladino would pay the rent on a new hall and the first expenses of a new labor federation devoid of leftists.

The deal fell through when Goldsack backed out of the plan. But neither COMACH nor the CNT would disappear. Today the CNT is the Chilean “labor movement”—with the blessings of the junta. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

Throughout the 1960’s AIFLD continued to work among the small unions of the CNT, while the CUT continued to grow. In 1967, the CIA worked overtime to insure the re-election of Christian Democratic President Eduardo Frei, who was glad for the help in defeating the Popular Unity Coalition which was backing Salvador Allende. This program of the CIA was disclosed by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in its recent hearings on the CIA.

By 1970, however, Frei’s solutions to Chile’s problems had failed, and the Chilean people elected Allende with a plurality of the vote (it was a three way race). The Popular Unity Coalition was in power, despite some discussion within the U.S. government of a coup d’etat. It was decided to wait.

During the wait, however, the United States undertook a campaign to “destabilize” the Allende government. The destabilization campaign was planned by the top level “40 Committee” under the direction of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger . The campaign had a number of elements ranging from the establishment of right wing, paramilitary gangs (called “Patria y Libertad”), cultivation of the military leadership, and labor activity. AIFLD coordinated the labor end of the plan.

While virtually all economic aid and loans to the Chilean government were cut off and the U.S. insured that the International Monetary Fund blacklisted the Chileans, two programs increased: military training for Chilean officers and AIFLD for “Chilean workers.”

Since September 11, 1973, it’s been clear what the military aid was for. It’s been more difficult to get information on how AID’s $1 million in “technical assistance” was spent during that time.

The number of Chileans trained by AIFLD increased 400% in the year prior to the coup!

Who was trained and what was the nature of their training?

Chile: Bosses Become ‘Workers’

In 1972, the AIFLD ten year report stated that COMACH, the Chilean Maritime Federation, was “the major labor organization with which AIFLD cooperates.” Hirsch quotes Professor Nef, a professor of political science at the University of California at Santa Barbara, on the nature of COMACH:

Its membership is largely maritime ofcers, many of whom served as ofcers in the Navy. Even those without naval background spend their first year of training in classes with naval officers.

The officers of the Chilean Navy —with many heroic exceptions—were among the first to move against Allende on the day of the coup d’etat. Not so coincidentally, the U.S. Navy had ships on maneuvers off the coast of Chile on the day of the coup. Other professional employees associations which were active during the period of destabilization included the Mining Engineers, the Airline Pilots, and the independent truckers.

With more than 2,000,000 members by the time of the coup, the Chilean Confederation of Workers (CUT) had come a long way since the days when Morris Paladino tried to split it. Nevertheless, during the time when CUT was organizing the vast majority of Chilean workers into its affiliated unions, AIFLD sponsored the establishment of a Confederation of Chilean Professionals (CUPROCH). CUPROCH was brought into international prominence when its affiliate among independent truckers staged a “shut down” in October, 1972. During the shut down, the truckers were reported by Time  magazine correspondent Rudolph Rausch to be doing quite well—for strikers. Eating a meal of steak, vegetables, and empanadas, the truckers bragged they were getting their money from the CIA.

Many of the “strikes” which disrupted the Chilean economy during the period of destabilization were organized by professional associations, not by trade unions. Playing on the ambiguity of the meaning of the word “gremio,” the Chilean professional associations formed “The National Command for Gremio Defense.” In Spanish, gremio can mean either “union” or “guild.” According to Hirsch, “In Chile, a Gremio is usually an association of employers, professionals, or tradespeople, but it can include both workers and employers.”

Hirsch lists the following leaders of the National Command:

  • Confederation of Production and Commerce. George Fontaine, president, comes from one of the wealthiest oligarch families. He was once publicly associated with the Nazi movement.
  • Society of Manufacturers, Orlando Saenz, president, “reputed to be the brain behind the Gremio defense; served as liaison with the U.S. Embassy and was a secret director of Patria y Libertad, the fascist para-military organization.
  • National Society of Agriculture. Manuel Valdes, president of the Federation of Unions of Agricultural Employers (COSEMACH), organized road blocks in the countryside to prevent land reform. AIFLD trustee William Thayer helped establish COSEMACH.
  • National Society of Agriculture. Benjamin Matte, past president, was a director of Patria y Libertad and advocated the murder of all communists.
  • Chamber of Construction. Hugo Leon, president, stated: “We will carry on all of our forces to an enormous strike and not give in until the Armed Forces intervene and Allende is finished.”
  • Central Work Confederation. Founded by Leon Vilarin, who was also president of the National Command for Gremio Defense, this organization became the labor spokesman for the junta after Sept. 11, 1973. Vilarin was also president of the Confederation of Truck Owners of Chile, even though he owned no trucks.
  • Julio Bazan, president of CUPROCH, is a member of one of Chile’s oldest aristocratic families. He takes home $7,000 a month as a mining engineer.

The above are some of the more prominent “leaders of labor” who worked with AIFLD in the three years of destabilization. Taking advantage of word ambiguity and resorting to downright lies, the representatives of “free trade unionism” in Chile attempted to portray the CUPROCH lock outs as strikes and the protests of middle class housewives as evidence of “workers’ dissatisfaction with the Marxist regime.”

Chileans in exile and international organizations estimate that 30,000 persons—most of them workers and members of the CUT—were killed during and after the coup. Additional thousands were imprisoned by the DINA, the Chilean secret police. Many were tortured.

After the junta, the CUT was outlawed, its unions shut down, and its funds distributed among the Gremios. Thousands have been forced into exile.

At the same time, spokesmen for Chilean labor have been touring the hemisphere, defending the junta. Eduardo Rojas, president of COMACH, has been selected president of the new Chilean labor federation. Another AIFLD graduate, Luis Villenas, is vice-president.

The American Federation of Teachers and Chile

Even before the election of Albert Shanker as AFT president in 1974, the AFT was involved in Chile through the International Federation of Free Teachers Unions (IFFTU).

AFT’s representative for Latin America in those days was Denise Thiry, a Chilean who worked in the AFT national office. Ms. Thiry had never been a member of an AFT local (or a teacher for that matter).She was hired to work in the AFT national office in the early 1970’s. Prior to that, she had worked for PTTI.

According to former AFT president David Selden:

It was through IFFTU that I first met Denise Thiry. She emigrated to Chile with her well-to-do parents during or soon after World War II from Belgium. In the 1960’s, she was working in the office of the Postal, Telegraph and Telephone International, which was housed in the headquarters of the Communications Workers of America in Washington, D.C.

Ms. Thiry started working as a secretary, but her linguistic ability—French, Spanish, English, and some German—and her general competence soon resulted in a promotion to an organizing position, working mainly in South America.

From PTTI, Ms. Thiry came into the AFT. According to Selden, he tried to establish an international program independent of AIFLD. It failed. “While the deal was under consideration I suddenly was offered the service of Denise Thiry to head it up.”

Thiry represented the AFT in Latin America at the time of the Chile coup. The following year David Selden was defeated in his bid for re-election. Albert Shanker became AFT president. Four weeks after Shanker was elected—and less than a year after the bodies were smoking in the streets of Santiago, Chile—the AFT applied for its first AIFLD grant. Thiry was made director of international relations for the teachers union that she had never belonged to.

One of the people sponsored for training at Front Royal by the IFFTU (at Ms. Thiry’s request) was Gilbert Gaston, an administrator in the National Military School in Chile at the time of the coup. Gaston spoke for his graduating class at Front Royal in March, 1974. He had nothing to say in criticism of the Pinochet junta. Afterwards, AIFLD sponsored him to go to Costa Rica to “clarify conflicting rumors about the Chilean situation.”

We do know what happened to the Chilean Teachers Union after the coup—it was padlocked and its property was confiscated and turned over to a teachers’ “professional association.”

The IFFTU reported to AIFLD on the situation after the coup:

The democratic leaders are busy making the necessary contacts to re-organize the teachers under an organization reflecting the traditions of democracy in Chile. During her visit in November, 1973, Ms. Denise Thiry had the opportunity to discuss future programmes now that conditions have changed in that country. An intensive educational programme has been requested, in order to ensure a democratic base for the new teachers’ organizations.

Seconding Ms. Thiry’s opinion, AIFLD Director William Doherty, Jr. reported on July 1, 1974: “AIFLD will aid democratic, reformist workers to build strong unions in Chile, giving the country a democratic-dominated movement for the first time in many years.”

We know the fate of at least one teacher who apparently was not part of the democratic teachers’ movement that Ms. Thiry looked forward to. Forty-two-year-old Marta Ugarta, a member of the Communist Party and the Chilean Teachers Union (SUTE), was arrested by DINA agents on August 9,1976. Several weeks later, her body was found on the beach north of Valparaiso. She had been strangled, her jawbones and both wrists had been broken, and she had numerous contusions.

Pedro Jara had seen her in prison:

Comrade Marta was able to show us her wrists which had turned very dark. There was no longer any skin at some places, and she told us that she had been suspended for many hours during the interrogation. She also told us that she had been “treated” with electric current continuously and that she had been confronted by others.

After Marta Ugarta’s body was found on August 27, the junta tried to claim that the death had been the crime of a pervert. The body was so mutilated that dental records were needed to make a positive identification.

1974: The AFT Gets Shanker and AIFL

By the time of the National Convention of the AFT in August, 1974, enough was known about the situation in Chile to move the delegates to pass a resolution strongly condemning the junta and calling on the U.S. government to place sanctions against the junta until basic rights were restored. The motion passed overwhelmingly.

Immediately after the Chile resolution was passed, a motion asking the union to investigate AIFLD’s relationship to the 1973 coup was defeated. The motion, which simply asked for an investigation into charges against AIFLD, was opposed on the floor by Sandra Feldman, a delegate from New York’s United Federation of Teachers. In two days, Feldman would become an AFT vice-president, when Shanker’s Progressive Caucus was swept into office. On the AIFLD motion, she said:

Now, there are those of us who know something about the AFL-CIO’s role in international affairs, and we know that we feel that the work that the AFL-CIO does through AIFLD is work which benefits workers in Latin America, which teaches the organizing skills including skills in developing their own trade skills and helps them organize free trade unions.

Now, the last thing that the AFL-CIO would be interested in doing is to put down the militancy of trade unions in the underdeveloped countries. It is in the interest of the AFL-CIO for militant free trade unions to develop in the rest of the world, certainly in Latin America, so that the workers in those countries cannot be used as slave labor, at low wages, undermining the wages of workers in the United States.

It is in the interests of workers in the AFL-CIO and in the United States and in the interests of workers in other countries for them to be able to build strong, militant, free trade unions, and that is the kind of work that the AFL-CIO is engaged in in Latin America and other places around the world where they are trying to aid fellow trade unionists.

I think that all this is trying to do is take a slap at the AFL-CIO, and I urge us to defeat it.

[AFT, Convention Proceedings, 1974, p. 87]

Feldman, at least, didn’t have to worry about slapping AIFLD in the face. The motion was defeated. The following year, another resolution was introduced along the same lines. It, too, was defeated. By1976 the annual Chile resolution merely called for a boycott of the “Torture Ship” Esmeralda, which was visiting the U.S. from Chile on a good will tour. That passed.

But by the 1976 convention, a number of things had changed. Most importantly, the AFT had become a part of AIFLD’s network of U.S. unions working under contract on “union to union” projects.

Less than two weeks after he was elected AFT president, Shanker began the procedure to get the union officially into AIFLD. In September, 1974, AFT treasurer Bob Porter sent in an application for the AFT’s first grant.

By 1977, the AFT was one of seven American unions participating in “union to union” AIFLD programs in Latin America.

Four of these unions—the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks (BRAC), the Communication Workers of America (CWA), the Glass Bottle Blowers Association (GBBA), and the Retail Clerks International Union (RCIA)—presently receive AIFLD money in the form of what are called “subgrants.” This means that they have the right to supervise their own administration of the money. Subgrant recipients are the journeymen of the AIFLD program. They don’t need as much guidance.

Three other AIFLD unions—the AFT, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers (ACWA) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) receive their money through “letters of agreement.” These unions are required to submit to more direct AIFLD supervision in the administration of their programs.

The AFT hopes to be out of its apprenticeship before long. Already an AFT AIFLD budget of $100,000annually is projected by 1981.

Exit Ms. Thiry; Enter Messers Loewenthal and DiBlasi

Denise Thiry did not appear at the AFT’s 60th annual convention in Bal Harbour, Florida, in 1976. Despite the fact that the union’s annual report had a section extolling her work, she had already resigned.

In August, 1978, we tried to find out what happened to her. We called the AFT and spoke with Ms. Carello in the International Affairs Department. When she said that nobody knew were Denise was, we asked whether she had left under a cloud. “Oh, no, we all loved her,” was the reply. Nevertheless, Ms. Thiry has left AFT and is unable to confirm stories that have been printed about her career, including one that charges that she held a party in her home in Washington, D.C. on the night of September 11,1973, to celebrate the “return of democracy to Chile.”

Thiry’s work was taken over by Al Loewenthal, who works as assistant to AFT president Albert Shanker. It was Loewenthal who introduced Irving Brown to the loyalists who came to hear him rap during the 1977 AFT convention in Boston. Loewenthal’s major areas of work in the union recently have been “international affairs” and cold war anti-communist propaganda.

Al Loewenthal, “Educator?”

According to the 1976-77 “Report on the State of Union” distributed to all delegates and visitors to the convention (and subsequently published in the September, 1977 issue of the

American Teacher, the union’s monthly newspaper):

Al Loewenthal, Assistant to the President, administers several departments, among them COPE, Legislation, Colleges and Universities, and International Education….…He frequently represents President Shanker at union-related functions and plays an important role in the continuing development of the AFL-CIO Public Employee Department….

Loewenthal represents the AFT on the trade union advisory committees for the Jewish Labor Committee and the National Committee for Labor Israel (Histradrut). He is active with the staff of the International Federation of Free Teachers Unions (IFFTU)….

Loewenthal was selected to represent the AFT on a survey team that visited teacher unions in the ASEAN countries, under the sponsorship of the IFFTU….

The IFFTU, like the other “free” labor unions and federations which sprinkle the AFL-CIA Orwellian glossary, has long been associated with the kind of “free trade unionism” that now exists in Chile. Working in coordination with the U.S. State Department’s Agency for International Development(AID) and the CIA’s agents in the western hemisphere, the IFFTU has increased its locals in the Caribbean from two to 19 in the three years since Loewenthal and Shanker moved their operation from New York to the union’s national headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Loewenthal’s jobs are both ideological and organizational. On the organizational side, he coordinates “surveys” of teacher unionism in Asia, assists selected trade unionists through agencies like AIFLD, and works with men like Irving Brown to overthrow governments critical of the policies of the United States and the multinational corporations.

Loewenthal’s ideological tasks included bringing French author Jean Francois Revel to address the 1977 AFT QUEST conference in Washington, D. C. Revel, author of

Without Marx or Jesus, is a leading European apologist for the United States. Part of Revel’s ideological contribution to the AFT was to tell people that America is doing nice things around the world and that fascism and communism are the same thing.

Loewenthal also works as a liaison with the Jewish Labor Committee. The JLC was formed in 1934 by David Dubinsky of the ILGWU and a number of others who were preparing to leave the Socialist Party.It was partly a response to the anti-Semitism of the Depression and partly a bloc to pressure the AFL leadership to admit a Jewish member. There had been no Jewish labor leader on the AFL Executive Council since Samuel Gompers died in 1928.

The JLC also spent a good deal of its time during the thirties fighting “communism” and Jewish labor leaders who were communists. Since the main anti-Semitic organizations in the world were fascist, and since the communists were fighting fascism a lot earlier and a lot harder than a lot of the JLC’s friends, it was difficult to be anti-fascist and anti-communist in the labor movement of the late ‘30’s.

It was only after World War II that the JLC found its home. It began acting as a front for activities of the Lovestone-Irving Brown team in Europe and a conduit for CIA funds to Brown’s European unions.

According to George Meany’s official biographer, Joseph Goulden:

One group Brown used as a front was the Jewish Labor Committee in New York, which acted as a conduit to get AFL money to Force Ouvriere…ostensibly for Jewish relief, actually for organization. By late 1947 the AFL was sending FO three thousand dollars every three weeks through the JLC….

Considering the fact that many of the professional anti-communists who received Brown’s sponsorship in the post war years had been sympathetic to the fascists—and certainly not opposed to the fascists’ views about the Jewish people—helping Brown was a peculiar way to fight against anti-Semitism.

As part of his role as “educator” for the AFT, Loewenthal makes frequent contributions to the union’s national newspaper, the American Teacher. In the November-December, 1977 issue of the paper, for example, the major book review deals with the book American Labor and European Politics: The AFL as a Transitional Force, by Roy Godson, Director of the Georgetown University International Labor program. An entire page of the newspaper is devoted to Loewenthal’s review of the Godson book.

American Labor and European Politics presents the Irving Brown-as-Robin Hood version of post-World War II European labor history. Loewenthal’s only criticism of the book is that there aren’t more like it and that it didn’t appear sooner.

Loewenthal recommends the book highly, partly because he seems to believe that we might have to crank up Brown’s old cooperation in Europe again soon. He views the rise of eurocommunism and the growing independence of the European labor movement from George Meany’s tutelage with alarm and warns:

…at a future date, in the struggle for democratic restoration, the lessons of post-war Europe will find application over and over again….

In the third world, we learn, those lessons are already “finding application.” Loewenthal only hopes that that application can be more widespread, and that the American Federation of Teachers can be more active in applying it:

…The emergence of new nations in the aftermath of colonial rule has created newer problems. The tasks are very difficult because everywhere—from the new Caribbean Island nations to the giants on the Asian subcontinent—trade unionists fear the take-over tactics of well-financed Communist operatives, whether of the Moscow, Peking, or Havana types. In country after country, where economics, prove to be shaky, the situation is even more complex. Dictatorships, usually of the military variety, emerge , and the trade union movement is hobbled. Teacher unions, for example arepermitted to exist, but within prescribed limits under government guidance. [Emphasis added]

Teachers unions like the SUTE in Chile are not even mentioned. They are not even permitted to exist “under governmental guidance,” as Loewenthal so delicately puts it. Those unions which do exist under the military dictatorships established and maintained with the help of the CIA, the State Department, and the AFL-CIO’s Department of International Affairs, practice a “business unionism.” “Unions” collaborate with the local dictatorships and work to insure labor peace while the multinational corporations which help sponsor AIFLD exploit the workers.

In Chile, the first educator to come to AIFLD’s Front Royal training center after the coup was a man named Gaston Gilbert. Gilbert was an administrator of the police academy of Santiago, one of the centers of the coup.

In fact, “labor leaders” of the kind Loewenthal sponsors live by the grace of their dictators and their dictators’ masters in the U.S. Labor leaders that are not favored by the AFL-CIO risk their lives to organize in their native lands.

At the end of his essay on Godson’s book, Loewenthal discourses on the renewed danger of Communism (of the “Moscow variety,” we are left to assume) in Europe under the guise of Eurocommunism. Loewenthal is upset that the new European Confederation of Trade Unions has recently admitted the Italian Trade Union Federation which is led by members of the Italian Communist Party.

Apparently, European trade union leaders are not as wise as those leaders of the American Labor movement who supported the Taft Hartley Act and other laws aimed at eliminating communists at home after World War II. Irving Brown and his “colleagues” in Marseilles used money sent through the Jewish Labor Committee in New York to hire Mafia goons in Europe to eliminate communists there. Of course, the association between the anti-communist “socialists” of New York and organized crime goes back long before World War II. But that’s another part of the story. The mafia has always been a bulwark of anti-communism, just as it has been staunch in its opposition to “quotas”….

Although Loewenthal claims to be “pessimistic,” his hope lies with books like Godson’s and folks like Brown:

Are we witnessing a replay of 1945-47? Godson lets current grim facts fall into place and the picture is once again grim.

Can the rest of history repeat itself, i.e. the enormously successful role of the American trade unions? Will American multinational corporations operating in Europe agree to  collective bargaining, American style? If they do, Godson suggests, all sorts of benefits to strengthen democracy could be the result in European and American unions….

Such benefits to democracy are apparent both abroad and at home. CIA unionism is insuring low wages in Latin America. The multinational corporations benefit. The workers suffer. The same freedom is coming home to the AFT: published votes; suppression of dissident locals….

The working people of New York are being educated by labor leaders like Shanker. Lowering wages and labor peace there, too. Educationally, this is pure Orwell.

But as educators, the leaders of the American Federation of Teachers are working overtime to insure that as many of us as possible have these lessons in our curricula.

Loewenthal’s acquaintance with Professor Godson and the Georgetown University program inInternational Labor Affairs and Labor Economics is not one that came about through a book review.

In fact, the AFT jointly sponsors graduate study programs at Georgetown and Rutgers through the union’s Department of International Education. Work done under supervised programs, including onefor “graduate credit for overseas travel and study,” can be applied to an M.A. in Labor Studies from Rutgers or even a D.Ed. For a year’s study at Georgetown, selected AFT members can now receive an M.A. in International Relations.

The International Education Department of AFT, established under Loewenthal’s direction in January, 1975, has been moving fast.

What does Al Loewenthal think of the CIA? He says he likes it. While members of the United Action Caucus were leafleting “Who Is Irving Brown” to delegates entering the convention at the Hynes Veterans Auditorium in Boston in August, 1977, he stopped to pick up a leaflet.

“What’s wrong with the CIA?” he asked a member of the New York teachers union, “I’ve beenworking with them for years.”

Anthony DiBlasi:  AFT–CIA Man?

Immediately after the 1977 AFT convention in Boston, the union’s Executive Council met and made several appointments to national union positions.

The September, 1977 issue of the American Teacher noted:

Tony DiBlasi has been appointed as the AFT’s International Affairs representative under the direction of Al Loewenthal, assistant to AFT President Shanker. DiBlasi, 39, will be the AFT representative in coordinating IFFTU in Latin America….

Before taking his post with the AFT, DiBlasi was, since 1974, an assistant director for the American Institute for Free Labor Development at AIFLD’s Front Royal training center in Virginia, which offers labor education for South American trade unionists. Previously, he was an AIFLD field representative in Honduras and Ecuador.

Born in Somalia, Africa, DiBlasi spent twelve years in his native country, Italy, before moving to Washington, D.C. He holds a B.S. degree from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and did graduate work in economics and linguistics.

As we noted earlier, Front Royal’s graduates today staff some of the most important union posts in Latin America. Virtually all of them are leaders of unions which exist by the grace of Caribbean and South American military dictators, including the present governments of the two countries where DiBlasi has served for AIFLD.

The unions that AIFLD has supported in Ecuador, for example, have maintained or helped maintain astatus quo which, in 1973, meant that:

….84% of all Ecuadoreans earn roughly five times less than that required to support a minimal standard of living….

….54% of the population receives only 9.5% of total income, while 7% receives fully one-half of total income generated in Ecuador.

Ecuador today, along with Honduras, stand among the poorest nations of the world. At the other end of the income spread in these countries stand the local elites who help maintain the power of the multinational corporations which co-sponsor AIFLD.

Just as we are to believe that turtles fly, we will soon be told of the achievements of “free trade unionism” in the countries that DiBlasi has helped to pacify for multinational capital. AIFLD’s free trade unionism in Ecuador and Honduras is part of the problem, not part of the solution to working people there.

What the future holds for the AFT in international affairs, no one can say. One thing is clear. Neither AIFLD nor the AFT’s special relationship with it is going to go away.

Chapter Four: The African American Labor Center (AALC)

AIFLD’s counterpart for Africa is the African American Labor Center  (AALC). The two organizations refer to one another as “sister” organizations.

The AALC was founded in 1965 after more than a decade of tension between George Meany and the Lovestone people, on the one hand, and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, on the other, over what to do in Africa. The contradictions within the ICFTU over African policy resulted from the simple fact that the U.S. government and the governments of the former colonial powers of Europe had conflicting interests in the African continent at each step in the struggle for freedom from colonialism. These were reflected in the labor unions working through the ICFTU. Even Force Ouvriere (FO), which had been created by Irving Brown with AFL-CIO and CIA money in France, balked at supporting the AFL-CIO’s policies in the French colonies of North Africa. The result was that the AFL-CIO accused the ICFTU of obstructing the work of decolonization and of being soft on communism. AALC—a totally owned subsidiary of the AFL-CIO whose money comes from the U.S. government—was born.

Unlike the AIFLD, AALC does not enshrine “tripartism” in its Board of Directors. George Meany is President and Chairman of the Board. Irving Brown was Executive Director from 1965 until 1973, when he was succeeded by Patrick O’Farrell. The entire Board of Directors is composed of leaders of AFL-CIO unions.

Like AIFLD, the AALC pushes programs of workers education and technical assistance for Africanunion leaders and members. It also makes direct grants and low interest loans to African unions for various purposes. In 1970, the Center paid $350,000 to build the headquarters of the Confederation of Ethiopian Labor Unions (CELU). Former Emperor Haile Selassie attended the dedication ceremonies for the building.

Most of the AALC’s projects are less grandiose than the CELU headquarters in Ethiopia. They include mobile health clinics, smaller buildings, office equipment, and technical assistance. AALC “technical assistants” operate today in more than 40 sub-Saharan African nations training African workers in skills ranging from tailoring in Dakar to diesel mechanics in Ghana. The AALC even gave a 16 mm. movie projector to SWAPO, the Southwest Africa People’s Organization, which is fighting a guerilla war against the illegal occupation of Namibia (the African name for Southwest Africa) by the Union of South Africa.

The core of the AALC program is “workers education.” Unlike AIFLD, the AALC does not have a Front Royal, Virginia, at which to host large numbers of scholarship students. Most training is done at various locations in Africa itself. A small number of handpicked leaders are sent to Harvard University, where they study in the Harvard Trade Union Program. After completing their classroom work, they spend time in the United States visiting American unions.

AALC educational work emphasizes collective bargaining and workers’ self-help as opposed to strike action. Typical courses in Africa are devoted to collective bargaining, union management (a sample: “How to Establish a Stable Dues Structure”), and cooperatives. The Center has spent millions of dollars financing African workers’ credit unions and cooperatives.

By the end of 1971, just six years after its founding, the AALC had projects in 31 sub-Saharan African nations and in Tunisia. Since that time, projects have expanded to more than 40 nations.

Since Patrick O’Farrell became Executive Director in 1973, the AALC has given more and more space to the work of the International Trade Secretariats (ITS’s) in Africa. The most active ITS’s have been the International Journalists Federation, the Retail Clerks International Association (RCIA), the International Metalworkers Federation (IMF), and the International Federation of Free Teachers Unions (IFFTU). Much of the work done by the ITS’s in Africa is financed by the AALC, which tightly controls the money to insure political reliability among its subcontractors and its African proteges. In1972, AALC announced that Force Ouvriere, the French union established with Irving Brown’s AFL-CIO and CIA money after World War II, had established a parallel organization, the Institute Syndicale Cooperation, which would work with the AALC in French-speaking Africa.

Free Trade Unionism in Southern Africa

The AFL-CIO has been on record for almost two decades in opposition to the apartheid policies of the Union of South Africa. AFL-CIO unions have participated actively in boycotting Rhodesian chrome, and the federation has lobbied for sanctions against the two main white supremacist regimes in Southern Africa.

The specific programs of the AALC in Southern Africa, however, reveal a great deal about itsintentions and its allies.

Prior to the liberation of Angola from Portuguese colonialism, the AALC devoted a great deal of timeand money to programs for Angolan unionists in exile in Zaire (formerly the Belgian Congo). At theend of 1973, the two “exile” Angolan union federations in Zaire merged to form the Centrale Syndicate Angolaise (CSA), which was affiliated with the GRAE (the “Angolan Revolutionary Government in Exile”).

At the time, there was a minimum of three “national liberation movements” for Angola. The Angolans in Zaire were affiliated with Holden Roberto’s National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA). The majority of those inside Angola were fighting for Augustin Neto’s Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), while a tribal movement in southern Angola had been organized into UNITA, led by Jonas Savimbi.

After the MPLA liberated Luanda, the capitol of Angola, in 1975, negotiations began between the three movements towards the formation of a new government. These ended when the FNLA and UNITA attacked the MPLA from the north and south respectively. Troops from the Union of South Africa aided UNITA, while it was charged at the same time that the FNLA in Zaire was under the control of the CIA.

Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon denied any CIA support for Holden Roberto and the FNLA. The MPLA has since defeated the FNLA “army” and most of UNITA. Angola, under President Neto, istrying to rebuild.

Nixon and Kissinger were lying four years ago. In 1978, the former head of CIA in Angola, John Stockwell, published a book detailing the CIA’s operationagainst the MPLA from Zaire. The FNLA, with its affiliated “unions” and army, it turns out, was a CIA operation. With the defeat of Roberto’s army and the establishment of MPLA control in Angola, the AALC’s “free trade union” federation, the CSA, has dropped out of sight.

Similar contradictions exist in Zimbabwe, where American policy has changed since the days of Kissinger only to the extent that U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young is able to speak out forcefully for  black majority rule while the agencies of the U.S. government work to insure that it will be the “right” kind of blacks who rule the majority. In 1973 the third world was scandalized (but not surprised) with the revelation that Kissinger had organized a plan for NATO intervention in Southern Africa (called, typically, “Operation Tar Baby”) to prevent a radical takeover of Southern Africa.

With the liberation of Angola and Mozambique in 1974, the position of Zimbabwe (the African name for the settler state of Rhodesia) changed radically. Even the intransigents behind Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith admit that some form of “majority rule” will be necessary in the future. The question for the black workers and peasants of Zimbabwe will be what kind of economic, political, andsocial life they will face with the onset of “majority rule.”

Irving Brown is already working on it. The AFL-CIO’s “freedom fighter” in Zimbabwe is Reuben Jamela. According to Philemon Mabuza, who served for seven years with the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union(ZAPU) as a guerrilla fighter and who is now living in exile in Britain:

Reuben Jamela was a protagonist during the early sixties for affiliation with the American dominated International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. He was a good friend of Irving Brown, the international representative of the AFL-CIO, the conservative U.S. trade union federation, and was one of the several Zimbabwean trade union movement individuals showered with money by the ICFTU. During its heyday, he was an executive board member of that body.

Much hated by the nationalists, he was stoned at a nationalist figure’s funeral. He is remembered by the workers in Haare, Salisbury, as the man who pulled the rug from under their feet in several wage struggles. He quit his high position in the trade union movement in the early 1960’s, but remained a member of the Salisbury Municipal Workers Union. Like many Zimbabwean power seekers, he has an uncanny way of bouncing back.

Late last year (i.e. late 1977), he announced that he was going to form, with the backing of the AFL-CIO, the Zimbabwean Labour Confederation, a body that could again split the trade union movement if it gained support.

A million dollars can go a long way toward creating a labor leader, even if he has no base among the rank and file and is at odds with his own people. And millions of dollars are being spent by the AALC and the other organizations promoting the AFL-CIO’s “free trade unionism” in Africa, just as they arein Latin America.

By 1969, in less than five years, the AALC had officially spent more than $9 million on its African program. Since that time, the amount spent annually has increased. While much of the money can be accounted for through the organization’s “educational” and “technical” programs, a good deal of it is used directly to bribe African trade unionists. Brown’s methods haven’t changed much since he boughta French labor movement of sorts to support the Marshall Plan in the late 1940’s.

In an exclusive interview in December, 1977, with Jean Bruck, former Secretary General of the World Confederation of Labor (WCL), Transnational Features Services reporters Rodney Larson and Don Thomson received confirmation of how Irving Brown was spending some of the money supplied to him by the AFL-CIO and AID:

They were influencing these conferences (of labor federations) through important gifts of money—large amounts of money—and the decisions of the meetings and conferences in order to make foremost the influence of the Americans on the African trade unions.

They did not leave space for other influence. Before the meeting would open, Irving Brown and his associates would be the first in the hotel. They were welcoming people and they were giving money to people, sometimes openly in the corridors with one suitcase and plenty of envelopes. They were giving their envelopes and they were giving their instructions to the people of the unions.

And after the meetings, when the meeting was successful in the way they were wishing it to be successful, they were giving additional envelopes to people who had assured their majority in the meetings.

(1977, Transnational Features Service. Reprinted by permission)

The “envelopes in the corridors” almost sounds too fantastic to believe, and perhaps it was when M. Bruck and the WCL faced Brown and Co. during the 1960’s. Since the “Koreagate” scandals in Washington, the idea of envelopes in suitcases is not as hard to believe. And the money came from the same place; the American taxpayers through the CIA or its conduits.

Since 1973, the AALC has been developing programs for black workers in the Union of South Africa itself. AALC projects in South Africa are undertaken in the “tribal homelands” and the black provinces of Swaziland and Lesotho. A question could well be asked why the AFL-CIO is permitted to work inthese areas while the government of the Union of South Africa kills organizers like Steven Biko.

As early as 1966, Brown was warning the U.S. Congress about the need for stronger measures for dealing with Southern Africa. In testifying before the House of Representatives subcommittee on Africa, he made an analogy between South Africa and Vietnam which sounds more ominous today than it did 12 years ago:

The great involvement of America in Vietnam today (1966) is not unrelated to the need to be concerned about the rising and eventual threat to peace and freedom in South Africa. For South Africa today presents the kind of problem that Vietnam was some years ago before it became necessary to involve over 200,000 American troops in a war to maintain the rights of people to their own kind of self-determination. If the Western World had supported the nationalist movement in those early days and helped them to attain their independence in a peaceful and democratic manner, the resort to violence might have been averted by democratic mass movements within the country itself.

Eleven years after he made the above remarks to the U.S. House of Representatives, Mr. Brown stroked the same string in his speech as “AFL-CIO Representative in Europe” to the American Federation of Teachers. At the AFT convention in Boston in 1977, he said the same thing, warning that South Africa could become “another Vietnam.”

Considering the results of American involvement in Vietnam, we need to consider—as Brown told us to—our involvement in Africa. But we should also consider whether we want to drive into the Southern African quagmire with the same chauffeurs who brought us Vietnam and stuck with it until the bitter end. Irving Brown, Jay Lovestone, and the money they have been spending so lavishly since World War II have no more place in a truly free trade union movement than J. Peter Grace and the Rockefeller corporations. In practice, their definition of freedom—whether for Vietnam or Africa—has more to it of Orwell than of the Declaration of Independence.

As we pointed out in Chapter 3, the CIA was forced to reorganize its money conduits after the exposures of the CIA foundation-fronts during the 1960’s. Most observers credit the Agency for International Development (AID) with taking up the slack for the intelligence agency. It is certainly clear that AID is not offering U.S. unions $40 million to organize the unorganized into “free trade unions” inside the United States. In fact, trade union membership in America as a percentage of the workforce is now at its lowest point since World War II and continues to drop. The same Congress that approves the AID package for AIFLD and the AALC defeats Labor Law Reform. Why?

It should be obvious that those who defeat Labor Law Reform for the United States and approve “free  rade union” missionary work abroad are working for the same ends. What is confusing is that the people who are doing the missionary work don’t see the contradiction.

In 1972, George Meany bragged that 20% of the AFL-CIO budget was now going for international affairs. That’s nothing to brag about in a time when the organizing department has shrunk and unions all over the country are losing members.

Nevertheless, the AFT, which has likewise suffered a drop in membership, is preparing to get on the bandwagon with the African American Labor Center.

Teachers in Africa: Local 2 Takes the Lead

The AFT’s involvement with Irving Brown’s programs in Africa is still in its infancy. The 1978 national union convention is the first to consider a resolution dealing with the AALC.

Nevertheless, AFT members, especially those from New York’s Local 2, have been active in AALC work for years.

In 1972, AALC took AFT national organizer Richard Arnold onto its staff to work in Addis Adaba.

In April 1973, the AALC Reporter announced that Doug McQuillan, a former member of the Delegate Assembly of AFT Local 2, the United Federation of Teachers, would join the AALC staff as a technical expert.

In October, 1973, the Reporter noted that UFT Assistant Treasurer Ponsie Hillman had toured Africa under AALC auspices, visiting Zaire, Kenya and Ethiopia. She also visited Europe and met with Force Ouvriere in France.

On April 22, 1974, the International Federation of Free Teachers Unions (IFFTU) met to discuss Pan Africanism in Zaire.

On June 8, 1975, AFT Vice-President Velma Hill represented the AFT at the AALC “Exchange of Views” in Choully, Switzerland.

On June 6, 1976, Albert Shanker, AFT President, joined Irving Brown and AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Lane Kirkland for the AALC “Exchange of Views” at Choully.

From April 16 to 21, 1978, New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) Executive Director Vito DiLeonardis lectured on collective bargaining and trade union management in Kenya.

August, 1978, the AFT national convention considers a resolution proposed by the Executive Council on South Africa. Among other things, the resolution states:

The AFT reaffirms its commitment to the work of the African American Labor Centersupported by the AFL-CIO. Aid and assistance must be provided to free trade unionswhich are operating under repressive conditions. As teachers, we offer special assistanceto free teacher unions and urge their affiliation with the International Federation of FreeTeachers Unions.

(Proposed AFT Convention Resolution #78).


Harold Laski on Foundations and Universities

The following quotes are from Harold Laski’s important 1930 essay “Foundations, Universities, and Research,” which was published in his book The Dangers of Obedience and Other Essays.

laski dangers of obediance

“The research institutes report to the universities; the universities report to the directors of foundations; the directors of foundations report to their trustees; the trustees seek reports from detached outsiders upon the reports they have received. Conferences are held for the reception of reports; and men are judged by the impression of them the reports convey. Trustees look to university presidents to pick the professors likely to attract endowments from the foundations; university presidents look for professors who can produce the kind of research in which the foundations are interested; professors search for healthy young graduates who can provide the basis for the ultimate generalizations. There are endless committees to coordinate or correlate or integrate. There are new executive positions for men who do not themselves research but judge whether other people are suitable for the task of research. These are formidable people, widely traveled, gracious, but firm in manner, as befits men who have vast benefactions to dispense. There are interim reports, special reports, confidential reports, final reports. There are programs for the development of every theme. There are surveys for the dissection of every problem, industrial, racial, national, international. There are experimental centers, statistical centers, analytical centers. More energy, I venture to believe, has gone this last five years into the systematization of research in this field than in any previous generation of intellectual effort.” (pp.153-4)

“I turn to the second aspect of the problem: the effect of the system upon the universities. Here, the controlling fact is that the great foundations have immense sums to disburse. It is the inevitable result that an energetic university president or an ambitious university teacher should think out his plans in terms of what the foundation is likely to approve. Certain obvious consequences follow. “Dangerous” problems are not likely to be investigated, especially not by “dangerous” men; that would not win the esteem of the trustees who can be counted upon to dislike disturbing themes. I know, for instance, of an important project, brought to a point after long and difficult negotiation, which was killed by a foundation in the belief that its completion would be displeasing to Signor Mussolini. And it must be remembered that the system, as it works, is all to the disadvantage of the scholar whose results, however important, come slowly. The president wants material for a formidable annual report which will obtain a renewal of the grant. Other things being equal, his blessing goes to the members of the staff who can give him material for such a report; and, where vacancies occur, search will be made for men of a similar stamp elsewhere. The personnel where vacancies occur, search will be made for men of a similar stamp elsewhere. The personnel of the university, in a word, comes to be dominated by the “executive” type of professor, who is active in putting its goods into the shop-window. The university with a big grant has its place in the press. The president is marked out as a man able to do things. The enthusiasm for quantity the most insidious of all academic diseases-grows by what it feeds on. Those who cannot aid the development of the new tendencies find themselves without influence and discouraged. Men, only too often, are judged by their output; and, as soon as that point is reached, they spend their time, not in reflection upon ultimate principle, but in the description of social machinery or the collection of “materials. It is the business of a university to breed great scholars; and in such an atmosphere great scholars will hardly be bred.” (pp.163-4)

“Nor is it easy to be satisfied with the position of the foundations themselves. Here, let me’ say at once that some of them are blessed indeed in their personnel; when one thinks of a man like Abraham Flexner, with his insight, his wisdom, his humility, one wonders why, long ago, one of the great universities had not implored him to lend it the aid, as its president, of his creative imagination. But a man like Abraham Flexner is rare indeed among the executives of a foundation. Usually the director gives the impression of considerable complacency and a keen sense of the power at his disposal. He has not often himself engaged in the serious business of research. He has dipped into an immense number of subjects; he is usually captivated by the latest fashion in each. He travels luxuriously, is amply entertained wherever he goes (he has so much to give), and he speaks always to hearers keenly alert to sense the direction of his own interests in order that they may explain that this is the one thing they are anxious to develop in their own university. When you see him at a college, it is like nothing so much as the vision of an important customer in a department store. Deferential salesmen surround him on every hand, anticipating his every wish, alive to the importance of his good opinion, fearful lest he be dissatisfied and go to their rival across the way. The effect on him is to make him feel that he in fact is shaping the future of the social sciences. Only a very big man can do that. From which it follows that he is a very big man.

“He has no desire — let it be admitted in the fullest possible degree — to control the universities he seeks to benefit. The gifts are made; and it is, I believe, only in the most exceptional instances that any conditions of any kind are attached to them. But, with all the good will in the world, he cannot help controlling them. A university principal who wants his institution to expand has no alternative except to see it expand in the directions of which one or other of the foundations happens to approve. There may be doubt, or even dissent among the teachers in the institution, but what possible chance has doubt or dissent against a possible gift of, say, a hundred thousand dollars? And how, conceivably, can the teacher whose work fits in with the scheme of the prospective endowment fail to appear more important in the eyes of the principal or his trustees than the teacher for whose subject, or whose views, the foundation has neither interest nor liking? What possible chance has the teacher of an “unendowed” subject to pull an equal weight in his institution with the teacher of one that is “endowed”? How can he avoid the embarrassment that may come when he is asked, as he has been ‘asked, to put his own work on one side and cooperate in the particular piece of research the foundation has adopted and upon the report about which the standing of his own institution may depend? What are his chances of promotion if he pursues a path of solitary inquiry in a world of colleges competing for the substantial crumbs which fall from the foundation’s table? And, observe, there is not a single point here in which there is the slightest control from, or interference by, the foundation itself. It is merely the fact that a fund is within reach which permeates everything and alters everything. The college develops along the lines the foundation approves. The dependence is merely implicit, but it is in fact quite final. If a foundation is interested in international affairs the college will develop a zeal for its study, or for anthropology, or the negro problem, or questions of population. But it would also, whatever the cost, develop a passion for ballistics or the Bantu languages if these were the subjects upon which the foundation was prepared to smile.

“I remember vividly a summer school in a European city which was visited by the director of an important foundation. Its organizers were hard pressed for funds and hopeful that some manna might fall from the particular heaven in which this director dwelt. I was invited to meet him at dinner, and instructions were offered to me about the kind of reception he was to have. Though none of us felt that what he has written possessed any special importance, we were to treat him as a high authority upon his subject. We were to elicit his frank views about the school, and explain that his hopes and fears coincided with our own. We were to discuss-of course in an impersonal way-the great achievements to the credit of his foundation, and the high influence it had exerted in the promotion of international good will. We were to refer delicately to our sense of the fitness of things which had led a foreign government to decorate him for his services. We were to indicate our faint hope that the light of his countenance might be pleased to shine upon so humble an effort as the summer school. In so delicately perfumed an atmosphere it was indeed comforting to watch the expansion of his personality. I think we almost convinced him that he was a great man; certainly he was pleased to indicate that he believed a distinguished future lay before “some of your group.” Am in me time the school made its formal application, and the appropriate manna fell from heaven.

As a rule, of course, the environment, on both sides, is manipulated with a finesse more exquisitely molded and more subtly staged. But that it is recognized where the real control lies no one who has watched the operation in process can possibly doubt. The man who pays the piper knows perfectly well that he can call the tune. He can shut down, at a moment’s notice, one of the most promising graduate schools in the United States by the simple process of deciding to spend its wonted subsidy in another direction. He can close an activity for which his foundation was famous all over the world, to which, also, men of international reputation have given years of devoted service, merely by deciding that there is not room for its activities in his next year’s budget; and the unfortunate subjects of his decision are without opportunity either of appeal or protest. Those who have access to him among the universities become important merely by the influence they exert. Let him select a scholar to travel among the colleges and report upon the teaching and organization of a particular subject, and the scholar will be received with the same breathless reverence as a Jacobin representative on mission. The foundations do not control, simply because, in the direct and simple sense of the word, there is no need for them to do so. ‘They have only to indicate the immediate direction of their minds for the whole university world to discover that it always meant to gravitate swiftly to that angle of the intellectual compass.


“No one, I suppose, has ever undertaken research, however humble, without feeling that the business of discovering facts is grim and necessary and infinitely laborious. But it is one thing to find them for the purpose of an end beyond themselves, and it is another thing, and a dangerous thing, to elevate the mere process of their discovery into a religious rhapsody. For immediately the second road is followed, a body of vital consequences follows. Immense sums of money become necessary; and the essential factor in the situation becomes the man or the institution with money to give. The laborers in the vineyard set themselves to cultivate his good will. And because scientific “impartiality” is important — for the donors must not be accused of subsidizing a particular point of view the emphasis of research moves away from values and ends to materials and methods.

“The men who used to be architects of ideas and systems become builders’ laborers. They are rated not for what they think and its value, but for how they can organize and its extent. The man who dominates the field is the man who knows how to “run” committees and conferences, who has influence with, and access to, a trustee here and a director there. The governing bodies of universities are naturally impressed by imposing buildings, long lists of publications, reports of committees with high-sounding names; how, for them, shall such activities not be important upon which foundations born of the grim, material success they understand, are prepared to lavish millions? The directors are, content enough, for their esteem is flattered and they have the assurance of innumerable committees that, one day, results of the first importance will be born. And if somewhere a faint doubt obtrudes, a reference to the technic of the natural sciences and the immense results secured there is usually sufficient to stifle skepticism.” (pp.169-76)



Book Review: Under the Mask of Philanthropy

The following review, authored by Professor Joan Roelofs, was published in the November 2017 issue of the journal Socialism and Democracy (Volume 33, Issue 3, pp.160-4). I don’t agree with all of Professor Roelofs representations of my arguments, but I am still happy that my book has received a positive review.

Book review

Michael Barker’s Under the Mask of Philanthropy is one of the very rare extensive critiques of the “nonprofit sector” from a left perspective. Marx and Engels, in The Communist Manifesto, derided “bourgeois socialists”:

A part of the bourgeoisie is desirous of redressing social grievances in order to secure the continued existence of bourgeois society.

To this section belong economists, philanthropists, humanitarians, improvers of the condition of the working class, organisers of charity, members of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, temperance fanatics, hole-and-corner reformers of every imaginable kind.

How should we today characterize philanthropy’s relationship to socialism?

There is broad agreement that conservative philanthropists have conservative and often, reactionary aims. However, Barker argues that liberal philanthropy has mystified its role in co-opting those trying to promote anti-capitalist thought and action: “The overarching purpose of liberal philanthropists … is to sustain corporate profits and legitimise the capitalist status quo, not to promote global peace and human emancipation” (28).

Barker opted out of academia just before receiving his PhD and is now a socialist activist in his place of origin, England. His enormous book is a compilation of his recently published articles, 42 chapters of them. His footnotes and citations are extensive; unfortunately, an index is missing. The book is more like an encyclopedia than a monograph, yet it is useful, important, and often fascinating.

The pivot of his research is the work of the largest liberal foundations: Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Sage, Gates, Soros’ Open Society Institutes, and others. The evidence for his argument is their relationship with their grantees and advisees: progressive organizations (some created by the foundations), reform movements, policy institutes, university projects, and networks. The latter may be in the guise of councils, task forces, committees, or stakeholders. Mainstream social science often claims that networks are non-hierarchical structures appropriate to our current “egalitarian” [sic] world, but the outcomes of most deliberations attest to the power of elites. Some of the networks Barker examines are the General Education Board, the War-Peace Study Group of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Environmental Grantmakers Association, the Freeze Campaign, and the Social Science Research Council.

Barker reminds us that philanthropy critique has a history. The Walsh Commission (1915) was a Congressional investigation, primarily of the Rockefeller family, which was creating its philanthropic foundation at the time. Public opinion in that Progressive era generally assumed that the foundation’s main purpose was to improve the Rockefellers’ public relations in the wake of the Ludlow Massacre. Frank Walsh, a Progressive, led the inquiry and concluded that the Rockefeller family wanted to preserve its wealth and power by “subsidizing all agencies that make for social change and progress,” although it would be more philanthropic to treat their workers more fairly.

Horace Coon’s Money to Burn (1938) revealed that military contractors provided major support for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Robert Allen’s Black Awakening in Capitalist America (1990) reported the philanthropic co-optation of the civil rights movement, with the Ford Foundation in the lead. A major contribution to these critiques (now taboo for ad hominem reasons) was David Horowitz’s series in Ramparts, “Sinews of Empire” (1969). Barker also mentions the works of Robert Arnove, editor and contributor of Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism (1980), and Joan Roelofs, Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism (2003).

Other valuable histories in the book describe the role of foundations in creating the World Bank, Planned Parenthood, the Conservation Foundation, the eugenics movement, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Green Revolution. The liberal foundations, which didn’t consider US aggression and militarization as “problems” that need their fixing, shepherded major elements of the 1960s anti-war movement first into an “anti-nuke” and then into an “anti-testing” campaign. The foundation-funded SANE protest was muted when the focus shifted to fallout, because underground testing was then initiated. Nuclear weapons themselves receded as “targets.”

Radicals who regard the civil rights movement as a model for achieving social change despite entrenched attitudes might consider Barker’s evidence that the foundations channeled and co-opted the movement to remove its original challenge to business as usual. Barker describes the important role that business corporations also played in the civil rights struggle, and relevant to our present crises, among them the military contractors. For example, Lockheed was a sponsor of the United Negro College Fund and a major supporter of the NAACP. Military contractor philanthropy has been particularly generous to all minority organizations, providing not only donations but also joint programs with Native American, Black, Hispanic, and women’s organizations. In some cases, “grassroots” organizations were created by foundations, well funded in order to draw people away from financially struggling genuine grassroots movements.

Barker devotes several chapters to the role of foundations in South Africa; the African National Congress Freedom Charter’s commitment to socialism had to be suppressed (Barker claims it wasn’t socialist to begin with, but I disagree). The methods used repeated the co-optation of the US civil rights movement, with an emphasis on individual rights, black capitalism, and lavish rewards for cooperative leaders. Elements of this model have been employed in the “NGOization” of the world; Barker gives examples from Latin America, Indonesia, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere.

One reason why so much of this history is unknown is that “Given the massive power liberal foundations have welded [sic] over academia it is perhaps not too surprising that discussing their corrosive influence is a taboo subject within academia” (366). There is no career advantage in looking too closely at philanthropy.

Also contributing to obscuring history is foundation funding of alternative media, such as: Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Center for Investigative Reporting, Center for Public Integrity, Democracy Now!, Media Channel, Free Press, Center for International Media Action, and the Independent Press Association (330). We rarely read or hear critical reports of liberal foundations and nonprofit organizations (from either the mainstream or alternative press) unless there has been a financial scandal, outrageous CEO pay, or a lawsuit. Investigating their barriers to badly needed social change or even democracy itself is not considered important news. Yet these institutions form an enormous part of our political, social, economic, and cultural life (and increasingly throughout the world), at the expense of traditional political parties and other popular forms of civil association.

So what is to be done? Barker argues that:

[W]orking within conventional universities only serves to legitimatize the status quo. … [Critical scholars] may need to move to these harsh edges and reject their comfortable lives within the neoliberal ideological factories that we presently call universities. (383)

This prompts the question: is there anywhere in academia where radical researchers can survive while making useful contributions to the cause? Furthermore, Barker maintains that progressive activists must “work to dissociate their progressive activism from liberal foundations … and create sustainable democratic revenue streams to enable their work to continue” (512).

His solution is not very practical. It is not so easy today to find adequate funds, as costly “professional” publication, facilitation, and communications are needed to legitimate organizations. At the same time, the tax code limits or discourages “funding the revolution.” Even when funds have been available from radical foundations seeking to promote anti-capitalist organizations, the results have not been promising. It is hard to find anti-capitalist organizations, and nonprofits cannot legally fund political parties (at least not in the US). Consequently, radical foundations, e.g., Haymarket Peoples Fund and Resist, support progressive groups and further “identity politics.” These initiatives have often increased the power, rights, and well-being of working class people and oppressed minorities. Yet beneficent reforms do not seem to lead to radical change. This is similar to the experience of the British Fabian socialists, who hoped that “gradualism” would lead to the abolition of capitalism, but that wasn’t in the stars.

Barker’s work prompts the vital question: how to bring about radical social change, which is desperately needed. Our capitalist nations are not only failing materially (supposedly their strong point) but they are breeding chaos, declining health, suicide, and addiction. They are also leading the world toward extinction from environmental or nuclear disaster.

The power of foundations to block major change arises not only from their elite networks holding top positions in politics, economy, cultural institutions, and progressive organizations, but also from their ability to shape the political ideologies of most citizens – the common wisdom – that Gramsci described as hegemony. What has been done, despite all this, may give us clues to what can be done.

For help in finding the way and avoiding the dead-ends, Under the Mask of Philanthropy is an important guide for activists and radical scholars. Barker’s research is ongoing and more may be found at

Robert Arnove and Under the Mask of Philanthropy

“Michael Barker’s Under the Mask of Philanthropy brilliantly illuminates how the various mechanisms of the ruling class have coopted working class struggles to maintain and deepen an international capitalist system favoring its interests. The book’s various chapters examine in detail specific policies, such as the eugenics movements and its various offshoots, locally and globally, while illustrating how powerful philanthropic foundations manufacture consent and quell dissent –thereby perpetuating various forms of imperialism. The overarching framework of Masking is conceptually rich and pragmatically realistic. A major lesson derived from Barker’ meticulous research is that if radical social change is to take place, it must necessarily be the result of the efforts of progressive grassroots movements, such as Black Lives Matter, joining forces transnationally. It is an honor for me to add my name to those endorsing this significant contribution to critical scholarship and activism.” — Professor Robert Arnove, author of Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism

robert arnove